Even though I have lived in California for 20 years, I still find the habits of California drivers a bit strange. This morning I once again marveled at how much trouble drivers here have merging into a single lane when one lane is blocked due to construction or some other activity. Instead of just automatically doing an alternate merge into the single lane, a whole series of elaborate games seems to be required. The cars in the unblocked lane try to close the gap to prevent the blocked cars from changing lanes, and the cars in the blocked lane often feel the need to engage in a lot of hand signals and gestures in order to continue on their way, or they just sit and wait until all the traffic has passed. Something similar happens when we have to empty out a crowded parking structure, which takes forever when the roads are congested. A lot of drivers feel the need to ask for permission to enter the road instead of just nudging their way out of the structure and into the moving traffic. As a former New Yorker, where we tend to go first and ask questions later, I find these slowdowns maddening.
These traffic interactions seem like a good metaphor for the costs of negotiation. I am reminded that we are not always better off if we must get into a whole give-and-take with the other party every time we find ourselves in conflict. Lots of conflicts would be resolved more efficiently if we all just followed some clear and simple rules. For example, when two cars arrive at an intersection at the same time, just yield to the car on the right. You don’t need to go through a whole series of waving and gesturing motions with the other driver to decide who should proceed first. Just as when you go to the supermarket, you’re probably happy that you don’t have to haggle over the price of every item.
Negotiations also introduce an element of perceived unfairness into the system. When the pushiest person gets to the head of the line, or the loudest negotiator gets a better deal on a car, that understandably bothers people. Even though we are told “caveat emptor,” most of us would probably prefer to live in a world where sellers treated us fairly and equally, rather than one in which each buyer must look out for herself or himself. This discomfort with the unfairness, as well as the time-consuming nature of negotiations, may make mediation a mysterious and even unpleasant process for many participants. Many people who become embroiled in a dispute just want that dispute resolved fairly and efficiently. They might accept mediation because they are told that the court system is too costly and painful and unpredictable. But they don’t necessarily buy into the do-it-yourself nature of the negotiating process either. They might not think compromise will lead to a just solution; they might not enjoy the negotiation process all that much; or they might be afraid that the other side will take advantage of them in a negotiation. Perhaps it is good to remember that negotiation is not always a painless or comfortable process for many participants.
(Google image of intersection in Romania from Mycee. This picture should serve as a warning that gridlock can occur when you rely on people to negotiate their own way out of conflict. This picture also demonstrates that a four way conflict is a lot more difficult to resolve than a conflict between only two sides. Of course many people would say that what this intersection really needs is a traffic cop. That would be the mediator. But maybe a traffic light would work just as well. Or better yet, turn the intersection into a circle and people might have an easier time negotiating their way around it on their own.)