Obstacles to Negotiation

In intractable conflicts, removing the obstacles to negotiation is the critical first step in moving toward negotiated agreements. Sometimes people fail to negotiate because they do not recognize that they are in a bargaining position. They may fail to identify a good opportunity for negotiation and may use other options that do not allow them to manage their problems as effectively. Or, they may recognize the need for bargaining but may bargain poorly because they do not fully understand the process and lack good negotiating skills.

In cases of intractable conflict, parties often will not recognize each other, talk with each other, or commit themselves to the process of negotiation. They may even feel committed, as a matter of principle, to not negotiate with an adversary. In such cases, getting parties to participate in negotiations is a very challenging process. In addition, both parties must be ready to negotiate if the process is to succeed. If efforts to negotiate are initiated too early, before both sides are ready, they are likely to fail. Then the conflict may not be open to negotiation again for a long time.

Before they will negotiate, parties must be aware of their alternatives to a negotiated settlement (their BATNA). They must believe that a negotiated solution would be preferable to continuing the current situation, that a fair settlement can be reached and that the balance of forces permits such an agreement. William Zartman refers to this as the belief that there is a "Way Out". Weaker parties must feel assured that they will not be overpowered in a negotiation and parties must trust that their needs and interests will be fairly considered in the negotiation process.

In many cases, conflicts become "ripe" for negotiation when both sides realize that they cannot get what they want through a power struggle and that they have reached a hurting stalemate. If the parties believe that their ideal solution is not available and that foreseeable settlement is better than the other available alternatives, the parties have a "Zone of Possible Agreement" (ZOPA). This means that a potential agreement exists that would benefit both sides more than their alternatives do.

However, it may take some time to determine whether a ZOPA exists. The parties must first explore their various interests, options and alternatives. If the disputants can identify their ZOPA, there is a good chance that they will come to an agreement. But if they cannot, negotiation is very unlikely to succeed. In addition, each side must believe that the other side is willing to compromise. If the parties regard each other with suspicion and mistrust, they may conclude that the other side is not committed to the negotiation process and may withdraw' When there is little trust between the negotiators, making concessions is not easy. First, there is the dilemma of honesty. On one hand, telling the other party everything about your situation may give that person an opportunity to take advantage of you. However, not telling the other person anything may lead to a stalemate. The dilemma of trust concerns how much you should believe of what the other party tells you. If you believe everything this person says, then he or she could take advantage of you. But if you believe nothing this other person says, then reaching an agreement will be very difficult. The search for an optimal solution is greatly aided if parties trust each other and believe that they are being treated honestly and fairly. In many cases, the negotiators' relationship becomes entangled with the substantive issues under discussion. Any misunderstanding that arises between them will reinforce their prejudices and arouse their emotions. When conflict escalates, negotiations may take on an atmosphere of anger, frustration, distrust and hostility. If parties believe that the fulfillment of their basic needs is threatened, they may begin to blame each other and may break off communication. As the issue becomes more personalized, perceived differences are magnified and cooperation becomes unlikely. If each side gets locked into its initial position and attempts to force the other side to comply with various demands, this hostility may prevent negotiators from reaching agreement or making headway toward a settlement. In addition, parties may maintain their commitment to a course of action even when that commitment constitutes irrational behavior on their part. Once they have adopted a confrontational approach, negotiators may seek confirming evidence for that choice and ignore contradictory evidence. In an effort to save face, they may refuse to go back on previous commitments or to revise their position.

To combat perceptual bias and hostility, negotiators should attempt to gain a better understanding of the other party's perspective and try to see the situation as the other side sees it. In some cases, parties can discuss each other's perceptions, making a point to refrain from blaming the other. In addition, they can look for opportunities to act in a manner that is inconsistent with the other side's perceptions. Such de-escalating gestures can help to combat the negative stereotypes that may interfere with fruitful negotiations. In ideal circumstances, negotiators also establish personal relationships that facilitate effective communication. This helps negotiators to focus on commonalities and find points of common interest.

Finally, if the "right" people are not involved in negotiations, the process is not likely to succeed. First, all of the interested and affected parties must be represented. Second, negotiators must truly represent and have the trust of those they are representing. If a party is left out of the process, they may become angry and argue that their interests have not been taken into account. Agreements can be successfully implemented only if the relevant parties and interests have been represented in the negotiations. in part because parties who participate in the negotiation process have a greater stake in the outcome. Similarly, if constituents do not recognize a negotiator as their legitimate representative, they may try to block implementation of the agreement. Negotiators must therefore be sure to consult with their constituents and to ensure that they adequately deal with constituents' concerns.

These concerns are related to what Guy and Heidi Burgess call the "scale-up" problem of getting constituency groups to embrace the agreements that negotiators create. In many cases, participation in the negotiation process helps negotiators to recognize the legitimacy of the other side's interests, positions and needs. This transformative experience may lead negotiators to develop a sense of respect for the adversary, which their constituents do not share. As a result, negotiators may make concessions that their constituents do not approve of and they may be unable to get the constituents to agree to the final settlement. This can lead to last-minute breakdown of negotiated agreements.

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