When Your Words Push Their Buttons

In negotiation and conflict resolution, taboo words and terms can take talks off the rails. A deeper discussion may be needed to get negotiations back on track.

By — on / Win-Win Negotiations

After 11 days of peace talks at a resort in Doha, Qatar, in March, U.S. and Taliban negotiators had reached significant breakthroughs, but a final agreement remained frustratingly distant, the New York Times reports.

The two sides had agreed in principle on a framework for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. In the 18 years since being overthrown by the U.S. military after the September 11 attacks, the Taliban has led insurgencies against American-backed regimes in Afghanistan and currently controls about 10% of the country, according to a 2018 U.S. government report. From the Taliban, U.S. negotiators secured a commitment not to launch attacks against the United States and its allies on Afghan soil.

But on this last point, the two parties have been at odds over the use of a single, loaded word: terrorist. The Taliban has said it will not allow “international attacks” to be plotted or carried out from Afghanistan. But American negotiators want the Taliban to specify that Afghanistan will not be used by “terrorist” groups.

Taliban negotiators have resisted the word choice on the grounds that there is no universal definition of terrorism, the Times reports. According to Taliban officials, the term terrorist is a sensitive and existential issue for its members. The talks reportedly have almost fallen apart on several occasions following heated discussions regarding use of the term.

The disagreement highlights the power that hot-button words and terms can have in negotiations. When one or both parties have a strong negative reaction to a loaded word, it can become such a point of contention that the negotiation as a whole may be jeopardized.

Taboo topics

In negotiation, it can be helpful to frame a contentious term or word as a taboo issue. In his book Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts (Viking, 2016), Daniel Shapiro, founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, defines taboos as delicate issues that, if left unaddressed, can prevent negotiators and those in conflict from reaching agreement.

Trying to avoid a taboo entirely may only exacerbate conflict and deepen impasse.

More specifically, a taboo specifies words, feelings, thoughts, or actions that are off-limits within a community or in a negotiation between parties. When we offend someone by violating a taboo in negotiation, we “make difficult conversations even more difficult,” writes Shapiro.

How can we navigate taboo words in negotiation? It may be possible and even desirable to avoid a taboo word entirely. As we described in our February issue, Chinese negotiators learned to avoid using the word protectionism in recent trade negotiations with the United States because the term had been used to criticize the tariffs U.S. president Donald Trump imposed on Chinese goods. Similarly, China was sensitive about the use of the term fair trade practices. When a term can be easily talked around or replaced with euphemisms, tensions are likely to lessen and the odds of reaching an agreement will improve.

Digging deeper

In its talks with the Taliban, U.S. negotiators might have agreed to replace the word terrorist with international attack or another mutually agreed upon term. But what if, as may be the case here, one side considers a word taboo precisely because it matters so much to the other party? For U.S. government negotiators, replacing the word terrorist with a euphemism might feel like a sanitization or whitewashing of traumatic events, such as 9/11, and thus an unacceptable and offensive capitulation.

Indeed, trying to avoid a taboo entirely may only exacerbate conflict and deepen impasse, Shapiro cautions. When this is the case, negotiators should strive to discuss taboos within a “safe zone” where they can be “examined without fear of punishment or moral compromise,” he writes in Negotiating the Nonnegotiable.

You might begin by explaining that you would like to get at the root of your discomfort over a taboo word. Parties may be grateful for the opportunity to share their feelings and grievances surrounding a sensitive word. Listen respectfully, and resist the urge to debate each other’s views. You can still reaffirm your values and objections to the use (or avoidance) of a taboo word, but your goal at this stage should be to simply bring deeper feelings and interests to the surface.

After such a discussion, parties can jointly decide whether to avoid the taboo word, replace it with a mutually negotiated word or term, or continue to use it. If you and your counterpart have taken the time to listen carefully to each other’s concerns about and objections to a taboo word, you should be in a good position to brainstorm a mutually acceptable solution.

When is a wall not a wall?

The shutdown that the U.S. government endured for 35 days spanning 2018 and 2019 went on record as the longest in the nation’s history. During the standoff with Congressional Democrats over his desired funding for a barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border, President Donald Trump at times referred to the proposed structure as a wall and at other times as “aesthetically pleasing steel slats.” Given that many Democrats had voted for new border fencing in the past, Trump’s choice of words seemed to suggest he believed they would agree to fund his barrier if he made it sound more fence-like and less wall-like.

If so, the strategy didn’t work. Shortly before being elected House speaker, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi told USA Today that Trump “says, ‘We’re going to build a wall with cement, and Mexico’s going to pay for it’ while he’s already backed off of the cement. Now he’s down to, I think, a beaded curtain or something.” In the end, Trump backed down from his demand, ending the shutdown, and declared a national emergency to secure wall funding.

There can be real advantages to tempering your choice of language to try to cater to your counterparts’ preferences and sensitivities. But terminology needs to be used consistently and supported with details and guarantees. If your counterparts think you’re just paying lip service to get what you want, you’re likely to hit a wall.

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