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On Tools and Their Dangers

We, like all professionals, focus most of our attention on making and using tools. We have jobs to do, expectations to meet, and tools are extensions of our selves. They imply a strategy for proceeding, a source of confidence that we really can make an impact on a reality that badly needs it, and a way of socializing the new generation. The negotiation literature, especially the teaching and research literature, is dominated by a focus on tools.

Tools are essential, and dangerous. The idea of “tool” may itself be a misleading metaphor. One characteristic of a tool is that it produces a change in the environment which one can then interpret, and this interpreting in turn leads to a judgment about what to do next. We say this about negotiating tools too, but it is often not so. A careful assessment of cause and effect in a particular, real, negotiation most often leaves a strategic muddle made of no visible change in the Other, or a visible change in the Other which may or may not have anything to do with the tool just used.

Robert Cialdini and Daniel Kahneman are part of the problem. Brilliant though their work is, they both, intentionally, leave the impression that using the right tool will almost automatically make a predictable change in the Other. Think of Cialdini’s “click-whir” imagery or Kahneman’s report of experiments about the impact of reframing. I don’t doubt the veracity of their reports, but watching a negotiation, reading a careful account of a negotiation, or interviewing a candid negotiator all produce a radically different picture of what it is like to be in that chair. They report ambiguity, uncertainty, and contradiction at the core of their experience. What accounts for the difference between research and practice? I will come back to this below.

Tools focus attention, but this comes with a cost. Atul Gawande describes how the mastery of medical tools so re-enforces a just-fix-it health care culture that a practitioner finds it difficult/impossible to cope with situations where fixing it is not possible. The drunk under the lamppost (the tool) doesn’t look for the key in the bushes, though perhaps being wiser than many in the medical profession, he knows there is no key under that light.

A tool by definition has limits. As a result, all conflict interveners (I assume) necessarily act beyond those limits. But our literature says little about the area beyond those limits.

What are we missing that exists outside the focus of our tools?

In hard science, basic research can mean exploration with no picture of immediate value to society beyond further research. Often, of course, there is hope for practical use. Some day. But the driving force behind the research is understanding, not use. I’ll suggest here two areas of basic research for conflict interveners, one already in full flight, and one that I believe needs substantial expansion. Both, I suggest, will some day have very practical use. Indeed, together they may change utterly how we understand conflict and negotiation, and what new tools we will need.

The person with the tool brings to its use a bulging wagonload of memory, pain, aspiration, fear, insight, blind spots, energy and competition for the use of that energy. We think of the study of negotiation as a matter of how. We downplay and often ignore the matter of who. But, obviously, it is the who that (who?) decides which tool to use, with what dexterity it is used, how high the aspiration should go, what fairness looks and feels like, when enough is enough, what is acceptable, and lots else. It is even plausible that the who, in all its parts, is much more persuasive than the how in getting the Other to move, to be flexible, to be inventive, to make concessions. “What you are speaks so loudly than I can’t hear what you say,” said my mother. One might see some anti-intellectualism in this (I did at 15), but now I would rather see it as a challenge to apply our intellect to a wider vision of what negotiators really have to do.

The more one stares at any human phenomenon the more complexity one sees, so it takes no special insight to point out things that our texts ignore. I am not arguing just for more complexity. I think the key question is not one of more or less, but rather whether what is omitted is crucial to understanding the subject we care about. An example.

One way that the who operates in negotiation is by the use of will power, or stamina, or stubbornness. These aspects of negotiation are slightly disreputable in our literature, carrying the whiff of fixation, obsession, or rigidity. But for the negotiator they are often survival requirements, and important for the process of persuasion. More generally, our field has long had a troubled relationship with the workings of power, especially when we think that something we call power imbalance might be at work. Much as we have wrestled with this, we have not, to my knowledge, thought about the satisfactions, even the joys, of having power, the terrors of losing it, the struggles – especially among those defined as weaker – to attain more, and the interactions between the users. What does it mean to experience power with all its attractions and repulsions? We haven’t looked at power from the viewpoint of the feelings of the negotiators. How do those feelings affect all the many choices a negotiator makes, and how do those feelings play out into the future life of the agreement, or non-agreement?

One way to understand the importance of these questions is to contemplate Thirteen Days In September, a journalistic account of Camp David One, the negotiation/mediation in 1978 among Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin, and Anwar Sadat. There are many wonderful things to say about this book, perhaps the most relevant one here being this: the author, The New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright, before writing the book had written a play on the same topic. The book-version can be read as an expanded drama of many conflicts, interweaving the personal, the political, and the national. Without pretending to be a mind-reader, Wright allows the reader to feel the conflicts from the viewpoint of each main actor, to feel the experience of frustration, to feel the angers reverberating, the hopes soaring and souring. And how – and this is the important point – all this is at the heart of the negotiation. This, one sees, is how negotiators live it. We of course think about improving the work of negotiators, so it is worth noting that Camp David One was largely a success. And the choices they made reflected the forces at play (forces originating in personal history, national history, political demands, intra-negotiating team demands) as they push against the personality each player brings to the table: ambition, virtue, fear, identity, and the desire to be seen publicly in a certain way. Occasionally one glimpses negotiation tools at work; but one could organize a negotiation course around Wright’s account, and not a lot of our standard texts would fit in.

In an effort to bring these issues down to a smaller scale than international peace, I have written two short stories, one each about the two parties in a salary negotiation. In the stories, I attempted to open up the ways in which their lives and personalities played out in the negotiating process. As literary efforts, the stories have been assessed (by my friends) as modest, even very modest. But as teaching tools the stories have been successful. The most successful assignment asked the students to write their own fictional negotiation, using any combination of fact and fancy they like. About 60% of them were wonderfully revealing of how family and personal histories play out in how they see the other side, how they see themselves, how their ghosts (e.g. a girl friend, a boss) are alive at the table, how personal lives influence the negotiating choices made, the negotiating values in play, and the interactions of personalities with negotiating dynamics. Their stories were rich in detail and rich in insight about “what is going on” in the negotiation. The student stories and the class discussions contributed little toward a theory of Negotiation, but they enriched enormously our understanding of particular moments and our creation of meanings for the overall process.

If we look more at the full lives of negotiators and how those lives impact the negotiating decisions real negotiators and our students make, I suggest that we will see our tools and the negotiating process very differently. This difference may turn out to be important for a number of reasons, but the primary reason is their relationship to what may be the most important line of basic research now underway in the world. This is the research into how our brains work. A core idea in that research is the network and the ways in which some surprising parts of our brains influence other parts. Thus if one combines the rapidly evolving field of brain science with a broad focus on the fullness of our lives as we engage with conflict, I believe we will create a radically different view of what negotiation is, and might be, about. Thus, a prediction: by 2050 our field will lead us to new understandings of what conflict is, will use radically different categories and vocabularies to prescribe what we should do, and will base those prescriptions on much more persuasive data than we have today. I do not mean to suggest that conflict will no longer be a major issue for humankind; of course it will. But we will be thinking, learning and teaching about it very differently – and I hope more effectively – than we do today.

The books we use today to describe and prescribe about negotiation may then be seen, politely, as “of their time.” What may, however, still be quite useful will be research of the kind pioneered by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Twersky. Kahneman describes (in Thinking Fast and Slow) a series of pitfalls in thinking which appear to be obstacles to negotiated agreement and which may be hard wired into us. More, even allowing for the useful work of Max Bazerman and his co-authors, the proposed remedies do not match up to the obstacles. But the research behind Kahneman’s book may provide useful frame works for the brain research. Are those pitfalls really hardwired, and what might that mean? Why do as many as a third of the research subjects not fall into those pits, and how is it that their brains function differently from those who do? Will re-wiring, however that may be accomplished, be possible?

Scary stuff? Certainly is. But so are the conflicts of our world. In any event, I believe that these changes will be at the core of our field in the pretty-immediate future. They will embody the promise of conflict resolution.

David Matz
Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security and Global Governance
Principal, The Mediation Group


David Matz

David Matz teaches conflict resolution at UMass/Boston and is a partner in The Mediation Group. Professor Matz has focused his work on the techniques of mediation and negotiation and on the relationship of these to the workings of organizations and courts. In the United States, he has led in the… MORE >

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