Adapted from “Helping Your Adversary to Let Go,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
Why is it that so many lawsuits aren’t settled until the parties reach the courthouse steps?
Sometimes the reason is strategic: each side may be waiting for the other to blink first. Dwight Golann, a legal scholar and veteran mediator, has identified another frequent cause—the grief that people feel when faced with giving up a claim.
Just as it takes people time to come to grips with the loss of a loved one, Golann observes that many disputants have emotional difficulty letting go of the need for vindication. An older worker who feels that he’s been wrongfully terminated may not be able to stomach a compromise settlement. A driver involved in a fatal accident may have a hard time accepting that she bears some responsibility. Surrendering the idea that one is totally in the right can be a painful experience. According to Golann, people who cling tightly to a principle or a self-image actually go through a classic process of mourning as they surrender their viewpoint and inch closer to accepting reality. They react with numbness, denial, and anger—all of which hamper reasoned attempts at resolution.
In extreme cases, the intervention of a mediator, or even a therapist, may be essential if parties are ever to let go of their psychological claims.
When third parties aren’t available, negotiators must stay alert for signs that other parties are caught up in their own internal struggles over perceived issues of principle and identity. In such cases, the process of negotiation may be more important than its substance. Unless we craft some graceful way for our counterpart to save face, we may remain hostage to his emotional turmoil.