Conflict Resolution

Advanced Problem-Solving Strategies

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In his press conference on September 10, 2010, President Obama commented on the re-opening of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians as follows:

And one of the goals I think that I’ve set for myself and for my team is to make sure that President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu start thinking about how can they help the other succeed, as opposed to how do they figure out a way for the other to fail.  Because if they’re going to be successful in bringing about what they now agree is the best course of action for their people, the only way they’re going to succeed is if they are seeing the world through the other person’s eyes.  And that requires a personal relationship and building trust.  Hopefully, these meetings will help do that.  (transcript)

This is classic mediator language.  I’m guessing most people follow the President’s points about creating empathy, building relationships, and establishing trust.  People generally understand that that is how diplomacy and negotiation work.  The part that may seem most counter-intuitive, however, is the part about helping the other side succeed rather than trying to “win” the negotiation.  If diplomacy is seen as war by other means, parties generally view their goal as accomplishing as many of their objectives as possible.  They have a hard time grasping how helping the other side achieve their goals advances their interests.  Isn’t that just another way of giving in?

Yet if we look at history, we can see numerous examples of parties who struck too hard a bargain paying a price later on.  The onerous terms imposed on Germany after World War I, for example, may have led to World War II.  In the Middle East, Israel needs to worry about whether a potential Palestinian state is viable, and Palestinians need to worry about whether Israel is secure.  Otherwise any peace agreement may fall apart in a few years.

OK, but do these goals for international diplomacy apply in the more mundane world of private negotiation and dispute resolution?  Both corporate and litigation attorneys representing clients in these contexts probably start off thinking it is almost unethical to try to accommodate the other side’s interests.  Yet it may not be possible to make a workable deal for one’s client, or achieve a settlement of a lawsuit, without at least considering the needs of the other side.  Parties entering into business relationships learn that they need to make sure that the deal is fair, and sometimes talk about leaving something on the table for the other party, otherwise they are going to create resentment and future problems.  But even parties negotiating settlements in which they expect to have no future relationship with the other side–the world in which I more often operate–should probably give more thought to how the deal looks from the other side of the table.  If they don’t think about how to “sell” the deal to the other side during the negotiations, they may not even achieve a settlement in the first place.  To do that, they must be able to persuade the other side that the agreement satisfies the other side’s goals and concerns better than the alternative.  That means parties to any kind of negotiation need to understand the other side’s goals and concerns as well as they can.  And they at least need to be able to make a credible case to the other side that their offer is better for the other side than the alternative.  Otherwise they can have no realistic expectation that the other side will accept it.

Another point worth noting from the quote at the top of this post, is the president’s remark that both Abbas and Netanyahu already agree on the best course of action.  In other words, as is true in many settlement negotiations, the general outline of a settlement, and even most of the details, are already well known.  (See my comments on this point in a post on my political blog.)   Both leaders have endorsed the concept of a two state solution, and a large majority of both Israelis and Palestinians favor the concept.  What needs to happen to achieve an agreement is for the leaders to overcome resistance to peace within their own constituencies, and to make the necessary leap of faith and hope.  The process is not unlike settlement negotiations in many private disputes, in which the biggest obstacles to agreement are the parties’ own reluctance to give up the fight, their mistrust of one another, and their need to answer to other parties (e.g., their board members, their spouse) who resist agreement.

(Reuters photo)