On Sex And Negotiation: An Editorial


by Robert Benjamin

May 2002

Robert Benjamin There are only a few activities that fit the description of being core and fundamental to human survival and procreation. Safe and competent sexual functioning is an obvious one, especially in this day and age when sex can be a life or death matter. Parenting skills is another: the future of the planet depends in large measure on the nurturing and support of future generations. Communication skills are clearly critical to fend off the threat of misinformation and to sustain empathy in our human affairs. Yet, of all of these fundamental human activities, the ability to negotiate may be the most important of all.

Sex, parenting and communication do not happen without negotiation. Negotiation is penumbral; the medium by which those other skills are practiced and accomplished.

Sex between people begins as a negotiation---if done well, it is part of the seduction and foreplay, but if handled poorly, the encounter will be doomed.

Parenting is in large measure a negotiation with children and other adults in and out of a family system concerning roles, responsibilities and expectations. And, communication, while essential for negotiation, is not sufficient in and of itself and no substitute for the process of organizing and sorting out peoples’ differing views and concerns, which is the focus of a negotiation. Turning it around, effective negotiation often requires the seductive charm of sex, the nurturing and support of good parenting, and the ability to connect with people and hear their meaning through or in spite of their words.

As you conjure up in your mind the events and activities of your day---your discussions with a spouse or partner, children, colleagues at work, clients, patients, opposing counsel, judges, supervisors, and even your dog, cat or horse----consider how reliant you are on negotiation skills. Wittingly or unwittingly, negotiation is a part of every utterance one human makes to another. There is, in the purpose and timing of the interaction, the construction of the words, and the authenticity of a seekers bearing, a negotiation strategy that can be gleaned. Quite simply, negotiation is the means by which one manipulates the people and circumstances to obtain some measure of what has been identified as necessary or important for his or her well being, security or self esteem. That manipulation becomes negative, or even pathological, if it is wholly pre-occupied with the seeker’s purposes and disregards or denigrates others needs. For the most part, however, most people maintain a relative balance and have some intuitive sense of how to negotiate.

Notwithstanding the critical importance of negotiation, most people have learned to negotiate by the seat of their pants. Little attention is given to the systematic teaching of the skill.

They have learned in the same hap-hazard manner in which the other essential human skills have been bequeathed. Many of us still learn about sex and sexuality as we have for generations, in the proverbial back seat of a ’57 Chevy. Likewise, parenting education is seldom provided when people need it, although ironically, it is available for some at the time of divorce. And, while communication is part of the curriculum in some schools, it is by no means the norm. Negotiation is not taught in almost any primary or secondary school, in few colleges and in only some graduate and law programs, and then with varying degrees of competency. Legal negotiation is presented, for example, as being a breed apart from negotiation in any other context. And, many of those who teach are still caught in the grips of the simplistic polarizing of negotiation into the cooperative versus the competitive camps.

As a result, competency in the fundamental skills in general and negotiation in particular, is a hit or miss prospect. The statistics on unwanted pregnancy, venereal disease and Aids suggest people still operate with considerable misinformation or no information about sexual functioning which leads to risky and unsafe practices. Parenting is narrowly limited to two approaches: the way may parents did it which was good enough for me, or the way my parents did it and I swore I never would, which disregards the other one-hundred-plus ways of doing things that are never considered. People say they know how to communicate, but that is not apparent in most discussions. Finally, there is negotiation, which a good number of people try to avoid at all costs, some think is just a bunch of bluffs and tricks to get the other side to give you what you want, and still others confuse with bringing peace to the world.

Negotiation is a part of almost every human utterance, yet very little systematic thought has been given to what we are doing when we negotiate and why. We negotiate well enough in the familiar narrow confines of our daily personal and business lives; we must, or we would never complete school, stay employed, or maintain relationships and families. However, few people could articulate what it is they do as negotiators and even fewer would know any alternative strategy if what they normally do did not work in a given circumstance. For example, a labor, personal injury or criminal lawyer each has a characteristic specialized approach to negotiation that may or may not be susceptible to being generalized to other contexts, and all of them are likely to differ from the approach of an executive, military general, or mental health professional.

Negotiation should be practiced by design and not by chance.

Not unlike sex, in negotiation, our natural instincts serve us well . But relying on instinct alone may not be enough. It is easy to fall into familiar patterns that can become ruts. Instincts are often conditioned by circumstances and may not transfer well to other contexts or unfamiliar settings or circumstances. No matter how much natural ability is present, systematic study and practice are necessary for skills to develop and remain honed.

If a usual approach does not work, there might be other strategies to consider. There needs to be an increased awareness that not everyone negotiates the same way. Gender, ethnicity, race, culture, religion, professional discipline, and many other factors contribute to a persons approach or ritual of negotiation. For some people, negotiation is “my way or the highway,” for others, “everything is negotiable.” If one way appears too rigid to some, the other can seem like “nickel and diming.” Before there can be any useful discussion about the substantive issues in a dispute, there may well need to be some consideration given to the clash between the parties disparate approaches to negotiation. The desire to directly discuss the issues without scrutinizing the negotiation can often spell the breakdown of the process.

As our society and the world have become more closely linked and complex, effective negotiation has become all the more a critical skill necessary to maintain any semblance of social balance. In the past, we have slid by with a hit or miss approaches to all of the fundamental human skills, and especially negotiation. It is not hard to overlook the importance of negotiation, it is so pervasive a part of our daily functioning that it is often invisible in plain sight. We can no longer afford to take negotiation skill for granted. Given the conflicts and issues with which we are faced, both personally and as a society, the careful and systematic study of negotiation has become essential to our survival.



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Biography




Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care.  A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now  teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and training courses nationally and internationally.  He is a standing Adjunct Professor at  the Straus Institute for Conflict Resolution of the Pepperdine University School of Law, at Southern Methodist University’s Program on Conflict Resolution and in several other schools and universities.   He is a past President of the Academy of Family Mediators, a Practitioner Member of the Association for Conflict Resolution, and the American Bar Association’s Section on Dispute Resolution.    He is the author of numerous book contributions and articles, including “The Mediator As Trickster,”  “Guerilla Negotiation,” and “The Beauty of Conflict,” and is a Senior Editor and regular columnist for Mediate.com. 

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Website: www.rbenjamin.com

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