Negotiating ‘Sacred’ Issues

By — on / Conflict Resolution, Daily

Adapted from “Break Down ‘Sacred’ Barriers to Agreement,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter, April 2009.

As negotiators, we’re trained to believe that almost every issue is ripe for tradeoffs and concessions. At the same time, most of us hold core values that we believe to be non-negotiable. Your family’s welfare, your personal code of ethics, or your religious and political beliefs may be strictly off-limits in any given negotiation.

There’s nothing wrong with maintaining the courage of your convictions, but negotiators often harm themselves and others by refusing to compromise in the face of destructive conflict. How can you persuade other negotiators to bend on the issues that matter most to them? How might you benefit from greater flexibility on your own core values?

To answer questions such as these, a team of researchers led by Jeremy Ginges of the New School for Social Research and Scott Atran of the University of Michigan examined one of the most protracted, violent disputes over sacred values in modern times: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. From 2004-2008, working with Douglas Medin (Northwestern University) and Khalil Shikaki (Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research), Ginges and Atran surveyed three groups of West Bank and Gaza citizens with strong opinions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: Jewish Israeli settlers, Palestinian refugees, and Palestinian student supporters of Hamas.

The respondents were presented with a proposal that would require their side to make a concession on a key issue in exchange for lasting peace in the region. Members of all three groups roundly rejected these proposals, viewing them as unacceptable violations of their sacred, non-negotiable values.

Would financial incentives sweeten the pot, the researchers wondered? To the contrary. Israelis and Palestinians alike were outraged when significant economic assistance for their side was added to the peace proposals; they were repulsed by the notion of trading sacred values for money. But the researchers found a chink in their respondents’ moral logic when they added a different type of deal sweetener to the proposals: a difficult concession from the other side on one of its own sacred values.

Suddenly, non-negotiable positions softened. The Israeli settlers agreed to make concessions if Hamas and other Palestinian groups explicitly accepted Israel’s right to exist. The Palestinian refugees grew more flexible if Israelis were willing to give up what they believed to be their sacred right to the West Bank. And the Palestinian students expressed flexibility if the Israelis offered an official apology for Palestinian suffering in the conflict.

Unlike tangible concessions such as money, apologies and recognition can’t be precisely weighed and compared. Yet this study’s results suggest that if you want to resolve an intractable conflict over sacred values, you should offer a symbolic concession of your own.

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