Conflict Management Techniques: Should You Take Your Dispute Public?

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Adapted from “Should You Take Your Dispute Public?,” originally published in the June 2010 issue of Negotiation.

To turn up the heat on opponents, negotiators sometimes advertise their grievances.

Here’s negotiation skills advice on when it’s a good idea to be vocal—and when to keep talks private.

The decision seemed nonsensical.

Early on the morning of March 7, 2010, with the Academy Awards telecast just hours away, the Walt Disney Company pulled the signal on WABC, its New York–area station. Residents in the New York area awoke to learn they might have to scramble to watch the Oscars via satellite at bars or friends’ homes.

Why would Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, yank his top-rated affiliate out of 3 million homes on ABC’s biggest broadcast day of the year?

As it turned out, the move was a high-stakes negotiation gambit, the New York Times reports.

ABC, like other over-the-air networks such as Fox and CBS, had been asking Cablevision and other cable companies for significant transmission fees. The cable companies had paid such fees to cable channels like ESPN and HBO for decades, but the major networks traditionally gave away their transmission rights in exchange for prime positions on cable systems. As their advertising dollars fell and the networks began to seek direct payments for their programming.

ABC reportedly asked Cablevision for about a dollar per month per cable subscriber for its local signal. When Cablevision countered with a much lower offer—reportedly about 25 cents—ABC negotiators believed they had reached an impasse. Facing contract talks with bigger distributors, Iger made the bold move of pulling the plug on New York’s WABC. The two companies negotiated through the day on March 7. Nearly 21 hours into the blackout, they reached tentative, undisclosed terms that prompted Disney to restore WABC’s signal—about 15 minutes into the Oscar telecast.

It’s not unusual for companies to take their private disputes to the public arena when they feel they’ve hit a wall, as Disney did in this situation. In November 2009, for example, in the midst of a pricing dispute with Coca-Cola, Costco removed Coke products from its shelves for several weeks and informed shoppers it was demanding lower prices from the soda company.

In January of 2010 Amazon temporarily removed the “buy” buttons from Macmillan books on its site in January to protest the publisher’s demands for new terms for the sale of its e-books.

In each case, a company chose to take a short-term financial hit in the hope of furthering its larger negotiation goals. It’s not only well-known brands that publicize their disputes. Smaller organizations and individuals have been known to court public opinion to gain a toehold against a tough opponent.

But there’s no guarantee such efforts will pay off. In fact, by antagonizing your opponent or the public, or both, you could make matters much worse. How do you know when to try this negotiating gambit?

In this article, we examine when to take a dispute public and when to keep it private.

Before Taking Your Business Dispute Public

When a negotiation is stalled and you’re sure you’re in the right, it’s tempting to think that holding
your counterpart accountable for a perceived wrong will resolve the dispute. After all, if others knew about your plight, they’d side with you against the bad guy, right? Not necessarily.

The following three traps could cause you to view the situation from a distorted perspective:

1. Egocentrism.

You may think you’re viewing a dispute objectively,but research shows your perceptions and expectations are likely to be biased in your favor.

Instead of assessing a situation without bias, we tend to settle on the interpretation that would most benefit us and then find ways to justify this preference on the basis of fairness, write Deepak Malhotra  and Max H. Bazerman in their book Negotiation Genius: How to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Brilliant Results at the Bargaining Table and Beyond (Bantam, 2007).

Disney, for example, was convinced it was only fair for Cablevision to pay it the same transmission fees it paid cable channels.

But in updates to its customers, Cablevision claimed it had offered Disney fair compensation for WABC—at least as much as it paid other broadcasters.

Cablevision went so far as to accuse Disney’s Iger of holding ABC viewers “hostage” in the dispute. Because of their different fairness perceptions, each side considered itself to be the victim and the other side to be the aggressor.

Remember, there are at least two sides to every negotiation.

Before making rash moves, think about how your counterpart views the argument. In addition, ask a trusted, unbiased advisor for a fresh take on the situation.

Expanding your mindset may open up new directions for discussion and head off a public battle.

2. Escalation.

Sometimes when negotiators take a dispute public, it’s because they’ve escalated their commitment to “winning.” Virtually all of us are susceptible to viewing negotiation as a competition rather than as a collaborative effort.

Unfortunately, this attitude causes us to overlook more creative ways of getting what we want, such as making tradeoffs across issues.

You’re especially likely to fall into this trap when you enter a negotiation with extreme demands, according to Malhotra and Bazerman, and when you become focused on recouping the resources you’ve invested in the deal to date.

The danger of escalation, of course, is that you’ll surprise and antagonize your opponent past the point of no return. “I don’t really understand it because we’re negotiating,” Cablevision Chief Executive Jim Dolan said in response to Disney’s blackout of WABC, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Furthermore, taking the matter public could tarnish your image.

Labor strikes are a prime example. The year after the 1994 Major League Baseball strike, game attendance plunged by 20%, and league revenues were well below average for several years. To avoid escalation, keep in mind that the time, energy, and money you’ve invested in a negotiation should not affect your future commitments.

3. Audience effects.

Interestingly, negotiators who are at risk of escalating commitment to a negotiation are often advised to eliminate the presence of an audience.

The larger the audience for your negotiation, the more competitively you are likely to behave, according to Malhotra and Bazerman—and the more likely you are to resort to hardball tactics that stand in the way of creative deal design.

Once you publicly commit yourself to a particular negotiating stance, you may find that you face a difficult choice between engaging in a protracted, costly battle or submitting to a humiliating public defeat. That’s all the more reason to keep your talks private.

Related Article: Win Win Negotiations – Can’t Beat Them? Then Join a Coalition


In our FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School – The New Conflict Management: Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies to Avoid Litigation – renowned negotiation experts uncover unconventional approaches to conflict management that can turn adversaries into partners.


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