Keys to Negotiation 5-The Paradox of Ambiguity


Berton Lee Lamb and Susan K. Driver

Here is a paradox for you to consider:  First, people bargain harder if they cannot quantify the issues and results.  Second, “compromise is often easier to arrange in a situation of ambiguity” (Raiffa, 1982).  How can both these assertions be true?

Here is how I think it works.  In many negotiations we really cannot quantify the results of a potential resolution. Quantifying the results means being able to calculate with some level of certainty what and how much you are likely to win or lose.  When we cannot figure out for sure how much we will win or lose, our fears are increased and we are more reluctant to agree; we bargain harder.  More than just the fear of the unknown, the inability to quantify issues leads us to focus on core values.  When we frame an issue as one of core values we bargain harder.

Ambiguity can help soften the bargaining stance of the parties if potential paths to resolution can be framed as contingencies.  We can agree to move forward down the resolution path if certain milestones are met.  In this way we don’t need to quantify the final resolution, but can make the milestones pretty concrete.  Successfully meeting milestones builds confidence that we can finally resolve the problem and develops trust among the parties. Framing a potential resolution in terms of contingencies can also help us identify new alternatives.

We can use the existence of ambiguity to help us work together to create a bit more certainty.  One way to do this is by first negotiating about process–such as where and when to meet, the rules for making a decision (e.g., voting versus consensus), how to keep a record of our decisions, or how to communicate our progress to the general public.  Tackling process questions first lets us get some decisions under our belt before we must face issues that bring core values into question. Focusing first on process lets us get to know the other stakeholders and begin to develop trust.  Trust is a vital foundation for future bargaining.  Trust grows as we are able to resolve issues together and learn something about each other.  One thing we learn is the ways in which we are similar.  This reduces fear and makes us more willing to work together.

Ambiguity also encourages the examination of a wider variety of factors than might be possible in a more easily quantified negotiation.  Considering a wide variety of factors can lead us to add new possibilities as we work toward resolution.  For example, we might extend the time horizon, agree to postpone actions, or include other subjects in our agreement.  Breaking the dispute into parts or adding new considerations (i.e., letting ambiguity work for you) can help the parties see a way through the negotiation to a possible solution.  By having smaller parts to deal with people are more likely to be able to calculate the potential results.  This can help reduce the hard bargaining often associated with the unquantifiable.

It is a paradox, but one the skilled negotiator can use to advantage.


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