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What voters can learn from the field of negotiation

Throughout this election season here in the US, there’s been a lot of talk about the candidates and their skills in, or positions on, negotiating.

Barack Obama took heat for saying he’d talk with Iran, as Republican contenders insisted they wouldn’t negotiate with terrorists, while Hillary kept changing her mind whether she would or not.

Meanwhile from the mediation community we’ve heard Robert Benjamin’s views as a hard core negotiator on one of the candidates, countered by a deft parry from conflict management professor Darrell Puls.

With so much at stake here in the U.S. presidential elections — jobs, the economy, health care, foreign relations, national security, the war in Iraq, civil liberties, education, the environment, you name it — it’s surprising that no one’s talking about the negotiation skills of the one person who matters most here: the American voter. That’s the person we should be most concerned with, since it is this person who will ultimately determine (dodgy electronic voting machines and Florida recounts aside) who will occupy the White House in 2009.

What kind of negotiator is this person? How prepared are they for the negotiation in the voting booth? That’s what I want to know.

I therefore propose three negotiation tips for voters to aid them as they decide which political candidate to pull the lever for come November.

Negotiation Tip No. 1: Be prepared.

Many negotiators agree on the importance of preparation. The more you ask questions, the more you listen, the more you learn, the more you’ve taken time to understand the interests at stake and evaluate the options available, the better the position you’re in to negotiate. An election’s no different. Knowledge is power, both at the negotiation table and in the voting booth.

In fact, you owe it to yourself to seek your information from sources that are as reliable and as objective as possible. Forget what the candidates, your favorite radio station, or your Uncle Dave tell you. Visit sites like The Fact Checker,, or to learn what the spin-doctors don’t want you to know. As The Who once said, “Won’t get fooled again.” Let that be your anthem.

Negotiation Tip No. 2: Watch out for cognitive biases.

As humans, we all fall prey to cognitive errors — the mistakes our minds commit as we make decisions or form judgments. In fact, here’s a whole list of them to guard against. In particular, watch out for confirmation bias — the tendency to seek out information that supports your position.

Negotiation Tip No. 3: Arm yourself against the weapons of influence.

In his classic work, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini details our susceptibility to the manipulations of others. He warns of how easily we succumb to influence, what he calls the click, whirr of human behavior. Click, the behavioral trigger is activated. Whirr, we irresistibly respond. For example, researchers have documented how effective authority can be for influencing everything from consumer purchasing decisions (consider the controversy over Dr. Robert Jarvik’s endorsement of Lipitor) to support for a political candidate (think Chuck Norris or Oprah Winfrey).

For a description of the strategies of influence at work, Victoria Pynchon writing at Settle It Now Negotiation Blog lists six basic principles of persuasion that you may already be at the mercy of.

* * * * * * * * * *

With these three tips, you’ll be ready for anything that the pundits and the pols dish out. Just remember, even if you don’t believe in negotiating with terrorists, at least be willing to negotiate with yourself before you vote.


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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