When negotiators get along well, creative problem solving is easy. When they become upset, however, they seem to forget everything they know about finding joint gain, to the point of giving up tangible wins simply to inflict losses on the other party. This is especially true in high-profile negotiations that turn nasty. This is where conflict management skills come in handy.
How Conflict Management Works in the Public Sphere
Confronted with negative publicity, executives become so focused on controlling public relations and managing the crisis that they lose sight of the fact that they are even in a negotiation. Here is some advice for negotiators dealing with an angry audience.
Many public relations experts would argue that negotiations have no place in a crisis. Reveal as little as possible, they say, deny liability, and avoid all forums that could legitimize your adversaries views. This advice ignores the fact that what an angry public wants most is to be heard.
Experts in conflict management point out that if the only communication that does occur consists of both sides asserting their positions and demanding that the other side take certain actions, little progress will be made. Instead, try construing exchanges with angry parties as negotiations in which the primary goal is to search for tradeoffs that will lead to a mutually beneficial agreement. Even when an agreement seems impossible, parties often can work together to create value.
Acknowledging the Other Side’s Interests at the Bargaining Table
Acknowledging the other side’s concerns can be difficult, especially when lawyers worried about liability are involved. But organizations that take the time to acknowledge the concerns of others will often be able to avoid making large concessions when negotiating.
For instance, a company that wants to build a controversial factory might meet with angry residents to acknowledge their concerns about possible adverse impacts. The company might also commit to ensuring that all relevant federal, state, and local regulations will be met if the factory is built.
Those who have been hurt by a corporation in the past (by an oil spill, for example) might begin their public campaign by demanding an apology.
In many parts of the world, indigenous people involved in current disputes about the use of their land have opened negotiations by demanding apologies for generations of hardship. Typically, corporate executives and government officials react by denying personal responsibility for past events. A better strategy might be to express empathy for the group’s past struggles via a public statement that stops short of an apology.
It is often possible to acknowledge the public’s concerns without accepting responsibility and generating exposure to liability.
What is your favorite conflict management method? Share your tips with our readers in the comments below.
Originally published in Negotiation, November 2009.