Friday, July 5, 2013

Thoughts on Negotiation

Over the past several months I have tried as often as I could to tune-in to Stefan Molyneux's Sunday Call-in Show via his website Freedomain Radio. It is kind of a cool format, you can listen to the broadcast and add comments or discuss other things that come up in the chat room.

During one of these broadcasts, Stefan made the point that by having very rational discussions with his still very young daughter (I think she may be three now), he was giving her lots of opportunities to practice negotiating.

This really intrigued me and I have recently listened to a two part discussion he presented on the topic:

Negotiation Part 1: The Opportunity

Negotiation Part 2: The Challenges

Sometimes, I think Stefan can be a bit rough in the way he presents his material, but, as with these talks, he really left me with some things to think about.

First of all: Most children are raised with a "win-lose" perspective/experience of "negotiation", in that, they are usually at the mercy of their parents' will, with or without any kind of rational justification or guidance for each incidence of conflict. As Stefan explains, this is, therefore, the "equation" they internalize.

Furthermore, although they may not have much choice in these matters as children, by the time they start to become adults, part of their accumulation of power, whatever form it takes, is all too often primarily directed towards "turning the tables", so that where they were once on the "losing" side of the "win-lose" equation, they can now cross over to the "winning" side. (But, of course, that means other people with whom they relate have to become the "losers" which ultimately does not support long-term, healthy, functional relationships.)

As Stefan points out in Part I of this talk, negotiation occurs in the context of certain realities: a) Everyone has needs and wants they wish to fulfill, b) The needs and wants of individuals do not always coincide, in fact, they very rarely coincide. In addition, from his point of view, negotiation is ultimately a creative process; i.e. two individuals come together, one is focused on accomplishing "Plan A" the other is focused on accomplishing "Plan B" and these two plans do not coincide. In order for negotiation to be truly effective, the two parties have to be able to come up with "Plan X" which is a New Plan that turns out to be better and ultimately more desirable to both parties than either "Plan A" or "Plan B". This is what he defines as a truly creative, "win-win" negotiation.

He goes on to explain how critical one's capacity for empathy is to being able to carry out these kinds of "win-win" negotiations. For instance, if you do not know what is really motivating someone to want "Plan A" or "Plan B", then you will have difficulty coming up with a suitable alternative, something that might meet their needs even better than "Plan A" or "Plan B". In some ways, you have to know them better than they know themselves to come up with a "Plan X" that is going to appeal to them beyond what they have already come up with for themselves.

Stefan also points out how people with low self-esteem, people who have internalized the "win-lose" scenarios of childhood, almost always feel threatened when faced by the challenge to negotiate with others in this creative way. First of all, "losing" for a child is traumatizing and humiliating, and adults who have not worked through those experiences are likely to feel the threat of "losing" or being humiliated that much more, in part because they know they are adults and that they should be over such concerns already, as well as because it does not take much to shift them into that place of feeling vulnerable and helpless, just like they were as children. Secondly, trying to engage them in truly creative negotiations with which they have little if any experience, quickly brings to light their inabilities, their inadequacies in this area. And finally, it is simply very difficult to give up the deeply internalized "win-lose" equation, as it feels like one is giving up their power for which they may have been working to gain all of their adult lives, ultimately to have power over others in the same way their parents had power over them.

I've never been a big fan of Thucydides, who authored the time-honored maxim of international relations when he wrote about the Peloponnesian War and characterized all such conflicts as a "struggle for power". But, if Stefan is right, and the seeds of such struggles are planted in childhood, where the child is so often forced to play the role of "loser" to their parents and other adults as "winners", then I can see how his observations are "true" in that they reflect this pattern that is being unconsciously repeated from generation to generation.

However, that doesn't mean it Always has to be that way. With enough understanding, with enough education, with enough adults learning to more effectively deal with their own childhood traumas before passing that legacy onto their children, we could learn to become better negotiators, and we could teach future generations of children to be better negotiators as well.

In that case, the struggle would be to challenge our individual and collective capacities to solve conflicts more creatively, to negotiate to find "Plan X" where we only start out with "Plan A" and "Plan B". First and foremost, though, it really is important to see how pervasive our "win-lose" thinking and politicing is right now, both on the national and international fronts as well as closer to home. How quickly do activist groups fall into chaos because each individual is working from that internally driven "win-lose" equation, of which they may not even be consciously aware?

Nevertheless, human beings are obviously some of The Most Creative Beings On This Planet! If anything, that is our Shared Power and it increases synergistically when people are able to combine their creative problem-solving efforts. That, too, is happening all the time, especially in fields of industry. However, it is in the field of closer, interpersonal relationships, that our most human frailties and vulnerabilities are accentuated. Consequently, where our technological development has raced forward, there is still much more work to be done if we are going to move our human socio-cultural development forward as well, and it starts with parents and other adults giving children more opportunities to practice the skills and art of Creative Negotiation.