Does the majority really rule?

By — on / Negotiation Skills

When a group of people are negotiating, what’s the best way to arrive at a decision? Ever since U.S. general Henry M. Robert published Robert’s Rules of Order in 1876, groups have relied on the principle of majority rule, measured with a simple yea or nay vote at the end of the negotiation process.

Majority rule appeals to our innate sense of fairness and prevents a vocal minority from overpowering the majority. But when negotiators know they will end up either winners (in the majority) or losers (in the minority), they may overlook the value of searching for the best possible outcome for all parties, write Lawrence Susskind and Jeffrey L. Cruikshank in their book Breaking Robert’s Rules: The New Way to Run Your Meeting, Build Consensus, and Get Results (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Susskind and Cruikshank advocate consensus building as a powerful replacement for majority rule. Rather than allowing the majority to dictate terms to the minority, consensus building involves seeking overwhelming agreement among everyone at the table. Though unanimity is often unlikely, you can and should strive to reach the best agreement for the vast majority.

One key principle of consensus building is that parties must formulate proposals that meet the needs of every other negotiator as well as their own. When people realize that they can achieve their own goals only by helping others attain theirs, they spend less time trying to form winning coalitions and more time brainstorming as a group. Instead of taking a final vote, parties continually add to a package of recommendations that can be reviewed by their constituents.

Adapted from “How to Cope When the Table Gets Crowded,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter, August 2011.

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