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(Vicki Nerino for The Globe and Mail)
(Vicki Nerino for The Globe and Mail)

Dispute resolution

Q&A: Let's make a deal. Or fight. I can't decide. Help! Add to ...

Whether we're talking about political leaders confronting adversaries or office employees asking for a raise, people in all sorts of jobs face conflicts on a daily basis. And they have to determine if it's better to sit down and compromise or stand up and duke it out. But how do we decide which course of action is best? Robert Mnookin, chairman of the program on negotiation at Harvard Law School, has spent years grappling with this question. He lays out the answer in his new book, Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight. By understanding the complexities of negotiation we can put ourselves in a better position to reach the ideal outcome, he says, whatever the situation may be.

What are the most difficult conflicts to negotiate?

Ones where you see your adversary as someone who can't be trusted - who's either harmed you in the past or is out to harm you in the future and whom you may even think is evil.

Evil is a strong word. I can see how political leaders might find themselves in the bind of having to decide whether or not to negotiate with 'evil' regimes, but does the same apply in other areas of life?

Analogous dilemmas apply in the business world and even in family life. There are business conflicts where people feel betrayed by a joint-venture partner, where they feel a competitor has stolen their intellectual property. And the question comes up, 'Do we really want to simply fight it out in court or might we be better off trying to negotiate a resolution?' And even in family relations, it's stunning how most families have tales of fights over family property that have led to family members demonizing one another and relations really breaking down.

You mention 'demonizing' the other person, which is one of the traps you identify as getting in the way of resolving a problem. How do you avoid such traps?

The first step is to be aware of these traps. Be aware, particularly when our emotions are high and we feel wronged, of moralism, of tribalism, of what I call zero-sum thinking: 'What's good for them has to be bad for me. Anything that's good for me is bad for them.'

How much of a danger is it to give in to anger when you're trying to resolve a dispute? Can emotions be helpful?

Strong emotions can get in the way of clear thinking.

Is clear thinking enough?

Even if you get beyond these traps and are thinking clearly, there are also some issues of morality and identity … that can exert a strong pull and make you want to resist negotiation.

How do you mean?

When I'm negotiating with an adversary, if I'm going to make a deal, what that involves is reaching a resolution that makes them better off than their fighting alternative. Often, we feel that even if it's better for me, the notion that there should be an arrangement that's better for them [is bad because]they deserve to be punished.

So many people seem to fall in to one of two camps: They're always for negotiating or they are always for fighting. Is that just because it's easier to take that approach?

In my field, which is dispute resolution, you hear people argue, 'You should always be prepared to negotiate. You should always be prepared to sit down with your adversary, even your enemy, and see if you might not work things out. People can change. Redemption is possible.' On the other hand, you hear some others make exactly the opposite claim [that]negotiating with evil is wrong, it will violate your own integrity. My book proceeds from the assumption that both categorical claims are simply wrong.

Let's look at a real-world example. Say a colleague steals one of your ideas? How should you proceed?

It all depends. What are your alternatives? Do you have a good legal remedy? If you do, what are the costs of pursuing it? How good are your chances of winning?

And if you don't have a good legal remedy?

Then you may well want to negotiate. My message is, it requires a careful assessment of the costs and benefits to you of either fighting or negotiating.

What do you hope people take away from your book? Is it that we need to be more aware of the complexities of negotiation?

My bottom line is as follows: If the question is, 'Should you bargain with the devil?' my answer is not always, but more often than you feel like it. Not always, because there are some occasions where if you really think it through you have an alternative that is better. But more often than you feel like it for two different sorts of reasons. One set of reasons [is]that your feelings, your emotions, are often going to make you want to fight when it doesn't really suit your long-run interests. But the second reason is, more often than you feel like it because it will sometimes involve the sacrifice of the pursuit of justice on the altar of pragmatism and doing what will best serve your interest in the long run. And that too never feels great.

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