A Practical Process for Reciprocal Negotiation


We ought always to deal justly, not only with those who are just to us, but likewise to those who endeavor to injure us; and this, for fear lest by rendering them evil for evil, we should fall into the same vice.
Hierocles


Reciprocity is as old as the first human interaction. It is best expressed through the Golden Rules that have come to us from our religious institutions. It asks us to balance our needs with the needs of another. In doing so, both parties are given the opportunity to build a relationship. These relationships are built through exchanges which could be economic, social or spiritual. Economic exchanges are real time transactions where each party gives one another something tangible. Spiritual exchanges are the pure expression of love, with no return exchange required. Social exchange is the intermediate case between economic and spiritual exchanges.


Empathy is one form of social exchange and most of conflict resolution is based on this exchange theory. Empathy is our connection to each other, both our perceptions and feelings. It is how well we understand the other’s point of view and our emotional attachment to the situation. Trust is the principal ingredient of social exchange, where a current transaction becomes a future obligation. Trust is built through risk, which is social exchange, where the parties act outside of each other’s control.


Reciprocal negotiation is a practical process that allows each party to recognize more deeply their role in the situation, the needs of the other party and their mutual obligations. Reciprocal negotiation is based on empathy, options and reciprocity. It is a process that allows parties to explore their future in a more complete way and identify areas of agreement and areas of concern in a more focused approach. This process has aspects of problem solving mediation, with its ability to generate options, and transformative mediation, with its ability to recognize and empower the parties.


I was working through a mediation with a young married couple, John and Sally, and the complexity of the issues, along with the deep feelings, was slowing our progress. When we were appearing to come to a standstill, out of frustration, I stopped the interaction and asked the parties to take a few minutes and write down their thoughts. I specifically asked them each to write down what they were willing to do to help resolve the issue and then to write down what they would like to ask the other party to consider doing. We took about 15 minutes of silent reflection with this written exercise.


When they came back, they were much more focused. Emotional intelligence tells us that it takes 15 to 30 minutes for the chemicals in our body to deplete after a very emotional situation. This calming down has the added affect of allowing us to see the situation more clearly and come up with a wider variety of possible solutions. The best solutions come when there are the most options available.


I then put a quadrant up on a flip chart, with the two parties on the left side and with two columns headed “what are you willing to do” and “what would you like to ask the other party to consider doing.” I phrased it this way, because we can only truly control what we do. We cannot control the actions of another party; we can only make humble and sincere requests. Ken Cloke refers to these as promises and requests














Bolded options indicate cross-matches.

Willing to do Ask other to consider
John 1. Take out garbage

2. Walk Dog

3. Fold Clothes
1. Make dinner

2. Wash dishes

3. Do laundry

Sally 1. Go out to eat

2. Do laundry

3. Wash dishes
1. Take out garbage

2. Fold clothes

3. Be home on time


When we sat down together again I asked John and Sally to share one thing at a time as we circled around the quadrant on the flip chart. We began in the upper left quadrant by asking John to share one thing he’s willing to do in this situation. John said he was willing to take out the garbage. We then moved to ask Sally one thing she’s willing to do and she was willing to go out to eat. Then moving over to the right and going in a counterclockwise motion, what would Sally like to ask John to consider doing. Sally wanted to ask John to take out the garbage. And then moving to the upper right quadrant John wanted to ask Sally to make dinner.


The second iteration, or circle route around the quadrant, began in the lower left quadrant, and Sally said she was willing to do laundry, but that as we move across Sally wanted to ask John to fold clothes. In the upper right corner John wanted to ask Sally to wash the dishes, and in the upper left quadrant John said he was willing to walk the dog.


In the third iteration, beginning with the lower right column, Sally wanted to ask John to be home on time. In the upper right corner, John wanted to ask Sally to do laundry. In the upper left corner John said he was willing to fold the clothes. And finally in the lower left quadrant, Sally was willing to wash the dishes.


We continued circling the quadrant for five or six cycles and as you do this you start to notice matches. You look at the cross matches on what is a party willing to do versus what the other party is asking them to do and you start to notice where promises and requests line up. For example, John wanted to ask Sally to wash the dishes and Sally said she was willing to wash the dishes. Sally was asking him to take out the garbage and John was willing to take out the garbage. He was willing to fold the clothes and she had asked him to fold the clothes.


However, you also notice fairly clearly the points for discussion. She is interested in going out to eat and he wants to ask her to make dinner. So after we have all of these points of agreement, we can focus more closely on the areas where there may be different perspectives. The completed process ends up with is very clear points of agreement and very clear points for discussion.


I tell the parties that they are free to share any of the items they have written down during their turn. And if new ideas occur during our discussion, they are free to mention those during their turn. What we end up with is a flip chart where the parties have had a chance to recognize the needs and concerns of each other and can address those through the actions they are willing to take and the requests they would like to make.


In this case, we didn’t end up with a written resolution, but the parties took the flip chart home and I heard later that they posted it on the refrigerator as a reminder of their commitment. And so the flip chart itself became the agreement and a reminder of their discussion of what each was willing to do and what each is asking the other to do, and ultimately their commitment to each other.


There are several other notable times when I’ve used this process. One occasion was with husbands and wives who had lived next door to each other for a number of years. They were having problems with a barking dog and I think we all understand that there won’t be peace in the world until we can teach dogs to only bark at appropriate times.


These neighbors were literally yelling at one another in mediation, which was fairly unusual. In most mediations I’m used to the parties being fairly well behaved once they agree to sit down in the mediation room. If anything, they start out being a little too reserved and quiet. These parties came in and were accosting one another verbally and I had put an end to it. What I asked them to do was to separate into two different rooms and to sit down with their spouse and talk about what they would like to get out of the situation. I asked them what are they were willing to do to help resolve it and what they would like to ask their neighbors to consider doing. After 15 minutes I invited them back in the room together.


During the time apart they had a meaningful conversation with their spouse, and they were much more prepared to proceed. The first thing the one neighbor was willing to do was to apologize and would like to do so now. That changed the entire discussion obviously, but in a model like this it gave them the ability to do that and take responsibility for their own their own actions. They proceeded to apologize for all of the actions of the gone on and to sincerely say they wanted to work together to improve the situation. At that point, I’m sure both parties took a closer look at the list they had generated and very selectively went through and brought up the remaining issues. They were able to resolve the situation through recognition and empowerment.


I’ve also use this process between surgeons in a hospital. The one thing doctors are trained to believe is that they are the smartest person in the room. And when you get two in a room together, you have all the ingredients for a conflict. There was an issue over salary schedules and we were able to identify the points of agreement and the points for discussion. This helps focus the discussion in areas where the most help is needed. The model works best with parties that have complex issues and an ongoing relationship.


Finally, in one mediation a party confided to me that she recognized that she was asking the other party to do 10 things and she hadn’t written anything on her side of the sheet. This helped her see more clearly that she had obligations in helping to resolve the issue.


I have also used this model with groups and when I do so I use a two sided sheet. On one side I write “What I am willing to do” and the other side “What I would like to ask the group to do.” We then fill in the sheet using only those two sides. Only the things individuals are willing to do will be accomplished, but this helps identify what the group wants and what individuals are willing to do.


Group model with two sides I am willing to do I would like the group to consider doing


I have been teaching this model in negotiation training and it is very easy for people to pick up the technique. Several large groups are using it internally with excellent success. I recently completed training State of Nevada employees in this model for an internal mediation program and they have reported great success in applying it. I would encourage anyone to try it and I would appreciate feedback of any kind.


Summary of model process steps


1. After storytelling, ask the parties to sit quietly for 10 to 15 minutes and write down what they are willing do to resolve the situation and what they would like to ask the other party to consider doing.


2. Start in any quadrant and ask for one contribution at a time from each party as you cycle through all four quadrants.


3. Begin the next cycle in a new quadrant and cycle through all 4 quadrants again. It is important to ask for only one contribution at a time in each quadrant.


4. After at least 6 iterations start to look for matches between what someone is willing to do and what the other party is requesting.


5. The parties are free to share any one item during their turn. If new ideas occur during our discussion, they are free to mention those during their turn.


6. We end up with a flip chart where the parties have had a chance to recognize the needs and concerns of each other and can address those through the actions they are willing to take and the requests they would like to make. We end up with very clear points of agreement and very clear points for discussion


                        author

Trip Barthel

TRIP BARTHEL is the Founder and Executive Director of the Neighborhood Mediation Center in Reno, Nevada. Trip practices and teaches mediation and conflict resolution through the National Judicial< College, University of Nevada, Reno, and Truckee Meadows Community College. Trip has worked in Russia, China and India during the last 3… MORE >

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