The Negotiator’s Fieldbook: Why Even the Best Get Stuck

From Gini Nelson’s Blog Engaging Conflicts

Painter's PaletteI’m reviewing The Negotiator’s Fieldbook: The Desk Reference for the Experienced Negotiator, Christopher Honeyman & Andrea Kupfer Schneider, Editors (ABA 2006), through the rest of 2007 and into 2008 (it has 80 chapters, more than 700 pages of substantive text, and something for everyone, from novice to expert!). I’m reviewing the book because it’s hot, hot, hot. More about the book and its editors here.

Part I: Why Even the Best Get Stuck is comprised of three articles (annotations are from the book):

  • Introduction: A “Canon of Negotiation” Begins to Emerge. Christopher Honeyman & Andrea Kupfer Schneider. (No annotation)
  • The Unstated Models in Our Minds. Jayne Seminare Docherty. You’re an experienced negotiator. But when was the last time you examined your own pattern of thinking? And is your pattern the same as your counterpart’s? This chapter helps you work out what’s going on under the surface, and leads onward to chapters about framing, internal conflict of the negotiator, and the characteristic problems of teams. It also suggests which chapters in this book best address your real-world negotiation problems, and how to get the most out of negotiation research.
  • Protean Negotiation. Peter S. Adler. What does it take to be really proficient as a negotiator? Adler argues that negotiators routinely allow themselves to be trapped by their own mental frameworks, unnecessarily restricting their own conceptions of what is desirable, or even possible. He suggests that you cannot do your best work as a negotiator till you absorb all of the often-competing theories that follow in this book, and develop a working competence at selecting which theory applies when.

Chris and Andrea offer this book as antidote to fractionation in the dispute resolution discipline. The intellectual basis of the field is now so wide, multidisciplinary, and deep that literally no single conflict specialist can keep up with all the new knowledge. Their book works to establish a negotiation canon, i.e., things that should be taught everywhere. The book is accordingly multidisciplinary, and drafted for both the novice and the specialist, and not even just for conflict specialists– the editors acknowledge that negotiation skills are clearly needed by most everyone. Because of this, the editors recognize that no single reader will find every chapter useful and interesting, and the book is drafted and organized to allow readers to find what they need when they need it.

Jane reminds us to look for important similarities and differences among the book’s chapters. The first duality addressed is the “agency-or-structure” duality. Most conflict specialists probably favor the “agency” side of this, emphasizing the degree to which human beings shape their own lives or destinies, as contrasted with their being shaped by the structures in which they live. Beyond that, however, Jane suggests sorting the book’s chapters according to how they answer the following questions:

  1. Is the author primarily interested in the immediate negotiation, or is she also interested in the ways negotiation can be used to assist larger social (structural) change processes?
  2. Does the author assume that the context or social structures surrounding a negotiation are stable, or unstable?
  3. How does the author describe human decision-making in negotiation, i.e., primarily from a rational choice theory (RCT) or from a social game theory (SGT) framework?

Jane finds this third difference among the chapters perhaps the most striking, even while it is seldom discussed openly. She concludes with this suggested approach for readers:

First know yourself and know your own problem. Then as you read the various chapters that you think might be helpful, ask whether the author is actually addressing the problems you are facing. Where is the author making some assumptions that don’t match your reality? Even if the author’s assumptions don’t fully match your reality, or your reality as you perceive it, that does not mean you can’t use any of the material in that chapter. It just means you need to use it with caution and perhaps with adaptations.

Peter’s article is discussed in this July 2006 Engaging Conflicts post. An interview I did with Peter at the time for the Engaging Conflicts Today newsletter is also republished today at Worried about the current trend toward fundamentalism in the practice of mediation and facilitation, Peter stresses the evolutionary bases of four basic schools of thinking about how humans behave:

One presupposes that all of us are fundamentally competitive. A second assumes we are, at core, cooperative. A third takes for granted that all of us will seek to do what is morally correct. A fourth assumes we are rational and pragmatic.

Just as Chris and Andrea stress that literally no single conflict specialist can keep up with all the new knowledge, Peter urges that while each approach is correct in some circumstances, no one approach is right in all circumstances. Peter proposes “Protean” negotiation, our becoming adept shaped shifters, able to adjust and adapt to whatever the specific circumstances are.

More in the next issue of Engaging Conflicts Today… sign up today!

Jane Seminare Docherty is associate professor of conflict studies at Eastern Mennonite University. She is the author of Learning Lessons from Waco: When Parties Bring Their Gods to the Negotiation Table and The Little Book of Strategic Negotiation: Negotiating During Turbulent Times and articles on negotiation and conflict transformation. She has worked with numerous partner organizations to help communities strengthen their capacity to harness the positive energy and minimize the negative consequences of conflict. She is particularly interested in the challenges facing communities and organizations experiencing sudden changes that demand rapid adaptation to new realities, such as a changing population, economic restructuring, changes in laws or regulations, or the losses associated with natural disasters or catastrophic events.

Peter S. Adler, Ph.D. is President of The Keystone Center, which builds applied, consensus-based policy solutions to science-intensive energy, environmental and health-related policy problems. Adler’s specialty is multi-party problem-solving. He has extensive experience with water, land use, and business negotiations, and mediates, writes, trains, and teaches in diverse areas of conflict resolution. Prior to his appointment at Keystone, Adler held executive positions with the Hawaii Justice Foundation, the Hawaii Supreme Court, and the Neighborhood Justice Center. He served as President of the Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution and has authored numerous publications in the field of conflict management.


Gini Nelson

Gini Nelson is a sole practitioner in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her practice emphasizes private dispute resolution, including distance dispute resolution, and domestic, bankruptcy and bankruptcy avoidance law. MORE >

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