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Do Our Words Send the Message We Want to Convey to Accomplish What We Want?

Dispute Settlement Counsel by Michael Zeytoonian.

How often have we said or written something and quickly or soon realized that the message the recipient got was not what we wanted to convey?

In the e-communications world, it happens all the time. This disconnect is assisted by the fact that how we communicate today lacks the non-verbal elements, especially what is written (and most communication is non-verbal). No body language, no eye movement or facial expression, and no tone of voice are present to help us understand the message.

For example, we teach in sexual harassment preventive training how voice and face changes everything. Take this sentence: That’s a nice dress you’re wearing. Said one way with neutral eye movement and you have a nice, tasteful compliment. Say it with different intonation with eyes going up and down the dress and you have an upset employee and the beginnings of a sexual harassment claim.

Our words also often convey our assumptions and presumptions. I read the Christian Science Monitor regularly and I have for years. It is a wonderful, insightful, objective, even-handed publication. Its editorial in its recent (12/9/13) issue on the recent Iran nuclear weapons agreement led with this sentence, which struck me as a very insightful observation pertaining to dispute resolution in general:

At the heart of any negotiation is a search for each party’s real motive.

Profoundly true. But the choice of the last two words – real motive – bothered me deeply. It was the implication of the words – something underhanded, something less than honest. The message in these two words was this: I question – I am leery of – what your motive is.

Was it the words that conveyed the negative inference? Or is there something deeply ingrained in all of us controlling how we interpreted the fairly neutral words? They didn’t seem to be asking – “What is it that you want?” They seemed to be saying – What are you really trying to pull here?

What if the editorial writer had led with a slightly different phrase?

At the heart of any negotiation is a search for each party’s interests and needs?

One sentence conveys distrust: What are they hiding?

The other sentence conveys connection and collaboration: We need to really understand their needs better.

Would the change in words have conveyed a more positive spin? Would that nuance get the negotiation off on a better footing? Or is it necessary for those initiating a negotiation to begin with the mindset of understanding and satisfying the interests of every party at the table, instead of coming with the suspicion of “what do they really want?” already in place? It would be helpful for all of us in reaching a good resolution for each party involved in the dispute to share each other’s interests and needs.

This shift changes the atmosphere to one of inquiry, openness, transparency.

Dispute resolution advocates and neutrals often point out that one key to success is to strip away the position that each party puts forward and get to the interests behind the positions. We can only achieve a win-win if we know what each side needs in order to get there.

Unless we have been living under a rock for the last 65 years, we know what the positions are in the Middle East. We’ve probably spent a lot of those years speculating with suspicion at what each side’s “true motives” are. What we haven’t risen to yet is the open and honest quest to truly understand and then work collaboratively to satisfy what every party’s genuine interests are.

The Monitor’s editorial writer is spot on about the observation as to what is at the core of dispute resolution or negotiation. But if the goal of the writer and all the players in this is a win-win, we all need to transform the nuance and inference in those last two words from one of separation and distrust to one of connection and forthrightness.


Michael A. Zeytoonian

Michael A. Zeytoonian is the Founding Member and Director of Dispute Resolution Counsel, LLC and is a lawyer, mediator and ombudsman. He is formerly a partner and now Of Counsel at Hutchings, Barsamian, Mandelcorn & Zeytoonian, LLP, in Wellesley Hills, MA. He specializes in employment law, business law, special education… MORE >

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