Adapted from “Framing a Negotiation to Foster Cooperation,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
Sometimes in negotiation, against all apparent odds, peace breaks out. Union leaders and management reach a last-minute agreement that averts a work stoppage. Litigants settle their differences as they mount the courthouse steps. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief and moves on.
But it’s worth considering what, exactly, tips a relationship from conflict into accord. In a study of Canadian workplace disputes, professor Jean Poitras of HEC Montréal asked participants in a mandatory mediation process what encouraged or discouraged them from cooperating with the other party in the initial session. The desire to find a solution to the conflict was the most frequently stated positive factor. Significantly, pragmatic considerations such as this were cited three times more often than “the need to maintain, reestablish, or improve” the relationship with the other side and five times as often as a party’s own willingness to “assume his or her share of responsibility” for the problem.
By contrast, there was no single factor explaining people’s reluctance to cooperate. Of the respondents, 22% blamed the problem on the other party; another 11% felt that cooperation was futile, given what they perceived as the other party’s disregard for them.
Trying to build better relationships is all well and good. But this study’s results suggest that framing negotiation (as well as mediation) as a problem-solving process may be the most promising way of eliciting cooperation at the outset. What’s interesting, moreover, is that initial optimism may not be a prerequisite. Only 9% of respondents said that their willingness to cooperate was driven by confidence in finding a mutually satisfactory solution. Instead, for most people, cooperation was implicitly a practical means of improving the status quo, not an end in itself.