What is Negotiation, Anyway?

I know, I know.  This sounds like another one of my dumb questions.

Actually, it is surprisingly difficult.  Consider the following activities.

Kids trading baseball cards, parents promising children ice cream if they finish eating their veggies, large groups of friends ordering dinner at a Chinese restaurant, families planning a vacation, tourists haggling at a Middle Eastern bazaar, claims adjusters processing a constant stream of routine insurance claims, TV stars cashing in on their celebrity in employment contracts, customers paying prostitutes for services or drug dealers for products, union and management officials working out collective bargaining agreements, professors wheedling perks from their deans, executives hashing out a corporate strategy, tycoons making huge real estate deals, community leaders crafting environmental compromises, public defenders coaxing their clients to accept plea bargains, lawyers and mediators settling contentious lawsuits, governments back-channeling with insurgents, kidnappers, or terrorists, and diplomats arranging peace treaties.

Are all of these things negotiation?  For those that are negotiation, what do they all have in common?  What distinguishes them from other interactions?

Can one truly negotiate with a mugger who is pointing a gun at your face?  Or, even more death-defying, what about dealing with your dean?

These are just a few of the topics discussed in an article from the Tower of Babel symposium last fall.  As Andrea Schneider, Noam Ebner, and David Matz drove back to the airport from the symposium, they discussed questions like these questions and many more.

That conversation became Act I in The Definition of Negotiation: A Play in Three Acts.  Then I metaphorically joined the ride in Act II, followed by forty years in the wilderness in Act III.  Actually, Act III doesn’t take quite that long, we weren’t in the desert, and we don’t actually make it to the promised land.  We did move forward, but not all in quite the same direction.

In my completely unbiased opinion, this short article is extremely thought-provoking and a hoot to read for anyone interested in dispute resolution.

This is a particularly useful article for the first class or two of a negotiation course, guaranteed to stimulate a spirited discussion.  If it doesn’t work to add this to your syllabus for the current semester as a required reading, you might recommend it and/or discuss in class it yourself.

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