Is the Issue Really Sacred?

By — on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “Negotiating Sacred Issues,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

In a classic New Yorker cartoon, a dinner guest shows up for the party, hands the host a $20 bill, and announces that this was the amount he had planned to spend on a bottle of wine before he ran out of time. Negotiation buffs will admire the guest for making an efficient tradeoff that saved him the effort of shopping and gave the host $20 to spend as he wished. But most people would view the guest’s behavior as highly inappropriate. Why?

Psychologist Phil Tetlock uses the term sacred values to describe cultural rules regarding appropriate behavior. When negotiating in Asia, Westerners might violate sacred values by getting down to business too quickly or exposing the soles of their shoes. Westerners who scoff at these values would nonetheless be horrified if a dinner guest handed them a $20 bill.

Violations of sacred values can bring negotiations to an abrupt halt. But it’s important to determine if the values really are sacred. Sacredness exists when a person would never make a tradeoff on a particular issue.

Sociologist Wendy Espeland tells the story of a Yavapai teenager who said, in the context of a possible dam being built on her indigenous population’s ancestral land, “The land is our mother. You don’t sell your mother.” The Yavapai’s beliefs are nonnegotiable—and therefore truly sacred. Meanwhile, psychologist Doug Medin notes that the Lacandon Maya tribe believes that when you cut down a tree, a star is removed from the sky. Despite this apparently sacred belief, the Mexican government successfully negotiated to partially harvest the tribe’s forest. According to the tribe, the deal it crafted with the government ensured that as many stars remained in the sky as possible.

In negotiation, you need to assess whether a claim of sacredness is real. If it is, back off. If it’s not, you’ve found an opportunity to seek out creative trades.

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