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Building Relationships as
Editors’ Note: The author argues that relationships in negotiation can be simultaneously over- and under-valued. She locates a significant stream of argument to the effect that relationships should be developed almost for their own sake, or at least with an eye to long-term and repeated dealings—and finds another that focuses on the short term and implicitly if not explicitly devalues relationships. The author contends that there is a reasonably moral and thoroughly practical view in between. Arguing that there is nothing wrong with admitting that one’s goals in a negotiation may fall somewhat short of true friendship or deep mutual understanding, Hollander-Blumoff notes that it is still productive and well worth the effort to form some level of connection with the other party. Even this modest step can smooth the rough edges, develop better information for the use of both parties, and make more agreements, and more creative agreements, possible.
Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard—it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing.
Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams
Relationships are a puzzle for negotiators. A poor relationship can derail a negotiation, but then so can a good one. The famous advice from Getting to Yes (Fisher, Ury and Patton 1991)—separate the people from the problem—makes the case for thinking about substance and relationship as distinct concerns that need to be addressed on their own terms. Difficulty in dealing with a challenging personality shouldn’t stand in the way of negotiating a conflict or a transaction effectively, and dealing with someone pleasant and friendly, or with whom you value an ongoing relationship, shouldn’t bamboozle a good negotiator into taking a subpar outcome. A common mistake, negotiation experts tell us, is to conflate people issues and substance issues, or to even allow them to overlap or make a difference. The take-away implication is that in negotiation, relationships are dangerous when they taint substance, regardless of the nature of the relationship.
Of course, there is simply no separating people issues and substance issues in the real world. We can make an effort to understand them as conceptually distinct, but decades of psychology and behavioral economics research have crystallized our knowledge that individuals are not rational automatons, and motivations, emotions, heuristics, cognitive biases, and other phenomena all affect our decision making and our behavior. Regardless of any effort to divide substantive issues from interpersonal ones, it is not possible to get around the fact that all negotiation is conducted by, and between, real people with real attitudes, feelings, and connections—not just related to the substance of the problem, but to the other participants in the negotiation. In light of that indisputable fact, what should a negotiator do to navigate the challenge of negotiating with other people?
In this essay, I argue that individual negotiators often, in their focus on their own needs, and contending with a host of psychological, cognitive, and self-serving biases, underutilize relationship building as a negotiation tactic. My conception of a relationship here is, admittedly, thin; I am not suggesting that every negotiator make an effort to form a lifelong friendship, to fall in love, or even to craft a significant framework for future iterated interaction. Instead, what I mean here is that negotiators should make a meaningful effort to form a connection with the other party to the negotiation—to reach out across the negotiation table to establish some element of connection with another human being, to ask questions, to get to know something about their negotiation counterpart and to share something of themselves as well. The connection might be one-shot or repeated, short-term or long-term, but the effort to build some positive interpersonal bond with another person will most probably yield positive dividends in the negotiation setting. Specifically, the effort to build a relationship with the other party during the course of a negotiation can foster the ability to take the other party’s perspective,...
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