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One Trick Ponies? Political Leaders Should Be Adept In Many Negotiation Styles, Not Just One

One trick ponies? Political leaders should be adept in many negotiation styles, not just one

In this election year, everyone’s paying a lot of attention to the negotiation styles of the presidential contenders, as I pointed out in a recent post.

The most recent commentary comes from the blog Daily Kos (thanks to fellow blogger Victoria Pynchon for the link), which discusses the substantive differences in the negotiation styles of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton:

By engaging all parties in negotiations, and reaching a collective agreement about how much weight to give to each variable, it is possible to provide some benefit to each party, although no-one [sic] gets exactly what he or she wants. This is integrative bargaining. I have a strong hunch that Senator Obama learned about this in law school, and applied it during his work as a community organizer. When he talks about having all parties sit down to negotiate about health care, this is what he has in mind. When Senator Clinton talks about defeating the enemies of her health care plan, she is talking about zero-sum bargaining. The 50% + 1 approach to winning elections is zero-sum. Her argument that she will break the glass ceiling by being elected president is also zero-sum; for a woman to win, a man has to lose.

Give me a break. It’s Daily Kos that’s created the zero-sum game, one which Clinton can’t possibly win. You’re either a value-creating negotiator (good), or you’re a value-claiming one (bad). There’s not a lot of room here for nuance. Indeed, this kind of reasoning evokes Orwell’s doomed sheep bleating, “Four legs good, two legs bad.”

The truth is that life — and negotiation — are never that simple.

Personally, for a change, I’d like to see the White House inhabited by a president who is skilled in many styles of negotiating. Someone who possesses the flexibility, sophistication, and wit to deploy the appropriate negotiation strategy, or indeed as many strategies as are necessary. Not every negotiation merits a collaborative approach. And sometimes getting to yes is a really bad idea.

No matter what, there is one negotiating style in particular the next administration should practice: what Bargaining for Advantage author G. Richard Shell calls “information-based bargaining”. A common-sense approach, it focuses on “solid planning and preparation before you start, careful listening so you can find out what the other side really wants, and attending to the ’signals’ the other party sends through his or her conduct once bargaining gets underway.”

We could all do with a lot more solid planning and a whole lot more careful listening by our elected leaders.

Otherwise, once again, we’ll end up with less than we bargained for.


Diane J. Levin

Diane Levin, J.D., is a mediator, dispute resolution trainer, negotiation coach, writer, and lawyer based in Marblehead, Massachusetts, who has instructed people from around the world in the art of talking it out. Since 1995 she has helped clients resolve disputes involving tort, employment, business, estate, family, and real property… MORE >

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