When will we start telling the truth about negotiation? For many years, much negotiation training has been focused on seeking win-win results. This concept was popularized by Fisher and Ury’s extremely influential Getting to Yes.
The search for a win-win outcome differentiates “Getting to Yes” principled negotiation from distributive negotiation which is usually a zero-sum game i.e. if I win, you will lose. In a principled negotiation, the parties will seek to understand each other’s interests and expand the pie i.e. invent new options for mutual gain.
I recently attended a talk by Professor Michelle LeBarron from the University of British Columbia. She suggested that we need to stop telling parties that they can achieve win-win outcomes. The reason? Even if the parties manage to negotiate a resolution, it is usually more a case of “mostly ok – mostly ok”.
In most negotiations, no party will get 100% of what they want – if they do get 100% the process is probably not a negotiation. Most parties in mediation (which is a facilitated negotiation) will end up achieving some of their own goals and allowing the other party to meet some of their goals. This is why the ‘mostly ok’ description makes sense to me from what I have seen in practice.
But is it true for the parties? We know from developments in neuroscience that we are programmed to experience losses more intensely than gains. It is not uncommon for both parties in mediation to feel taht they have made all the concessions, whilst ignoring any gains.
I think that for many parties the most significant gains are those that will only reveal themselves as they live the agreement. At the point of finalizing the deal, parties are often unable to appreciate the benefits that will accrue over time:
One party said to me some months after he had signed his mediation agreement, that he had not realized “the amount of space in [his] mind that was being used up” by his dispute. That space had become free for his family, his health and his business.
Imagining the future can seem like an impossible task. The hurts and pain of the past and present can make thinking about how things might look in one year, five years or ten years can be a struggle. At a time when parents are working through their separation, their children are not only managing their own response to this family transition, but are still growing and developing. The work of parenting and child development does not pause whilst parents recover their own equilibrium.
In these challenging circumstances, it can help parents to use a parallel parenting structure to manage their ongoing responsibilities to their children. Although agreeing rules is not the same as complying with rules, having an agreed structure in place is a significant benefit. Without structure, it can be impossible for people to imagine how they might move on. The old patterns of their relationship did not work but how can they construct a new pattern?
One of the issues for most separating parents is that for now they are surrounded by uncertainty:
In the midst of the separation process, children still need to be fed, watered and get to school. Parallel parenting can provide a strong basis for parents to manage their parental responsibilities. If parents are able to agree a new paradigm and meet their obligations, parents may even be able to rebuild trust, communication skills and the ability to problem solve. Choosing to try and build a new structure is the first step to moving on. The reality is that the children will continue to need help with homework, will get into scrapes, will have medical issues, etc. etc. Having a structure in place as to how to deal with the realities of parenting can help both parents to parent without having to re-litigate the past.
There are multiple variations in the way that parents can design how their co-parental team will operate. Separating parents need to be supported to develop rules which will work for their children and their new separated family.