Negotiation Quick Tips: When Values Clash

An interesting question came up while I was lecturing about multi-party negotiations at the Eastern Management Development Center (EMDC).  The EMDC is one of the executive training centers of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.  It is located in Shepardstown, WV.  The class was composed of 20 students.  Half represented a variety of government agencies in India and the other half were from Federal agencies in the United States, such as the EPA, Homeland Security, and Department of Defense.  The question was what to do when there is a clash of values.

This is a great question!  If the dispute really is mainly a collision of values the opportunities for resolution are limited.  They are limited, but sometimes not insurmountable.

The first step when facing a clash of values should be really thorough preparation.  If you suspect the dispute will be based on values it is important to look carefully at the other parties to learn how they have handled conflicts like this in the past.  Have they negotiated?  If so, how did they go about it?

The second step is to examine what the other parties are saying in preparation for the negotiation and at the negotiation table.  This requires expert listening skills.  Listening at the table, paying attention to public statements, and careful reading of webpages are vital in this kind of negotiation.  What the parties are saying (i.e., reading between the lines) can often give hints about how the dispute can be resolved. Here are a couple of posts about listening skills: Post 1, Post 2.

The third step is to start the negotiations so that the discussion is about process.  In the early stages, when you are listening hard, it is helpful to discuss a subject related to–but not directly on–the subject in dispute.  You can sometimes avoid direct battles over values by talking about the rules for the negotiation.

The fourth step is to use the information gained from preparation and listening to reframe the debate.  Perhaps the nature of the problem is not sufficiently clear to all parties.  In that situation, the parties might want to collectively describe the problem.  Or the parties might work together to see if they can agree on the kind of information that would be useful in achieving a good result.  This kind of collaborative action–sometimes called Joint Fact Finding–can be a good approach.   Another way of reframing the discussion is to focus on the relationships among the parties.  This can be especially helpful if long-term relationships are important.

The fifth step is to be frank about value differences.  Ask the other parties to explain their values.  Explore for shared values.  Look for things that you can do to satisfy the values of other parties, which don’t require sacrifice of your values.  Being frank doesn’t mean being angry or insulting!  It means carefully exploring the value questions; yours and theirs.  Easy to say, hard to do.  The key is to be frank but careful.  It is an exploration; ask questions with the intent to learn something.

We would enjoy hearing from you.  Post a comment to tell us about your negotiation experience when values clash.

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