Adapted from “Equal Time,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
Social scientists have long tried to identify the key drivers of success in resolving disputes. Several factors have been proposed: individualized contact that goes beyond the superficial, equal status among parties, commitment to a common goal, and institutional support. Studies have shown that when such conditions are met, parties’ attitudes toward one another often improve.
Other scholars have questioned the significance of such research, however, noting that changes in reported attitudes do not necessarily result in different behavior. This holds true whether the disputants are spouses, neighbors, or a company’s management and its employees. For this reason, recent studies have looked more closely at the process by which parties engage one another. Specifically, one project carefully monitored 47 “encounter” groups that bring together Jews and Arabs in Israel in hopes of promoting better relationships. Many of these groups involve adults, though some involve children as young as preschoolers.
The researchers tracked the degree to which communication was balanced, as defined by how often and how long various participants spoke. Speaking time was roughly equal in many instances, a possible reflection of both the goodwill of people who chose to take part and the facilitative skill of the conveners. In some cases, however, one side dominated the conversation. That asymmetry likely exacerbated differences between the groups.
It’s not enough, therefore, to get the right people to the table. How communication is balanced carries important symbolic messages about respect. More powerful parties need to be especially careful not to inadvertently dominate conversations and put others in a position where they feel they must save face.