Thinking about Your Opponent 5–Context

We often focus on our negotiation opponent in a very personal way.

Berton Lee Lamb discussing natural resource negotiation at Yamaguchi University, Japan.

We think our opponent is unnecessarily harsh or deeply uninformed.

Sometimes we simply feel that we cannot trust another party in a dispute.  We don’t want to negotiate when we believe an opponent is untrustworthy.  A recent article by Dr. Kurt Cline suggests that the feeling of untrustworthiness may have less to do with the individual negotiator and more to do with context.

Dr. Cline examined the question of why regional officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are sometimes less willing to negotiate with state officials.  As you would expect, he found that “trust” and “involvement” played a big role in willingness to negotiate.  He described trust as one party’s willingness to be vulnerable to another party based on a belief that the other party is “competent, open, concerned, and reliable.”  Dr. Cline described involvement as the role played by officials in helping to develop and actually implement a particular program.  In short, regional officials are more willing to negotiate if they see themselves as trustworthy and believe that states should be involved in developing and implementing a program.

It is significant that Dr. Cline also found EPA regional officials are more willing to negotiate if (1) they believe the state has the capacity to implement a program and (2)  if there is a high level of support within the state for implementing a program.  On the other hand, EPA regional officials are less willing to negotiate  with their state counterparts if those regional officials have a more positive relationship with their own headquarters.  These are context factors.

Context also played a role in willingness to negotiate in a study we reported in 1998. The context factors we discovered included whether or not there was a good alternative to negotiation, a party’s sense that they could be successful in negotiation, and the level of importance of an issue.

In thinking about your opponent it is important to take these context factors into consideration.  This is difficult to do in the heat of the moment.  In his important book Getting Past No William Ury tells us to “go to the balcony” (page 169).  By this he means when you face a difficult situation you should “suspend your reaction…. then buy yourself time to think.”  One of the things to think about is your opponent’s context.  Don’t dismiss your opponents as irrational, rather consider their incentives to negotiate and your own alternatives to negotiation.  Thinking about the conflict in this way may help you reframe the debate so that the result can be more productive.

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