Dueling Experts?

By — on / Conflict Resolution, Daily

Adapted from “Battles of the Experts,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

Sometimes conflict is triggered by honest disagreements over the facts. When one partner buys out another, for example, the two might disagree about the value of the business. Similarly, if a piece of high-tech equipment fails, the manufacturer might point to improper maintenance while the user claims faulty design.

You might think that getting experts involved would help bridge differences and facilitate agreement. In fact, experts can actually make matters worse. This is especially true if each side finds its own hired gun, whether an appraiser, an engineer, or an architect. After all, when disputants shop for an expert, they usually look for someone biased in their favor; and that expert, in turn, hears only his client’s side of the story. When each party can produce an expert to validate that party’s standpoint, negotiating positions harden.

John Wade, an Australian specialist in dispute resolution, recommends several key steps to prevent this kind of escalation. Ideally, disputants should jointly retain one trusted specialist. Even when this isn’t realistic, however, competing experts shouldn’t work in isolation. From the outset, they should be encouraged to address the same fundamental issues. What’s more, experts should explain the virtues and limitations of various methodologies instead of simply reporting contradictory conclusions, so that clients can understand the underlying sources of any differences that emerge.

Wade observed groups of accountants carry out this process effectively as they attempted to understand why their valuations of different businesses varied so greatly. “The clients appreciated having the underlying assumptions of each expert clarified,” Wade notes. Both sides recognized that their arguments weren’t ironclad, a change in mindset that reduced posturing and prompted agreement.

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