Civility as a Negotiation Strategy

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By: Gregory S. Clayton

When I teach Negotiation, I am sometimes amazed at how much I learn from the law students I am supposed to be teaching.  A good example is a perceptive observation by one of my students that “good people skills should be the low-hanging fruit in a negotiation.” 

The point is this: While many aspects of negotiation are difficult, the seemingly easiest is just working well with others -- being polite, acknowledging opposing viewpoints, showing respect and paying attention.  These, and other active listening skills, should be a given in any negotiation, setting the stage for effective communication, information sharing and working together toward a resolution. 

Most of us who mediate see occasional lapses in these most basic undertakings from otherwise capable counsel: answering cell phones in the middle of a mediation; remaining on the phone when a mediator returns to the room; or worse, typing on a phone while opposing counsel is delivering opening remarks. Phones are not the only culprit: eye-rolling, head shaking, derogatory comments, and interruption of presentations all can set a negotiation on a backward path.

Civility can be as simple as thinking to ask the other side if they would like to join in a food order if a mediation is going into evening hours. If clients or counsel have a deadline by which they need to conclude the mediation, mention this early and explain the reasons instead of springing this on the other side at the last minute.

Bad manners ultimately communicate a lack of respect.  They do not encourage compromise.  Instead, they have a polarizing effect, driving parties with conflicting positions further apart.  They elicit visceral responses, increasing the perceived areas of dispute and undermining the effectiveness of the boorish party.  Rudeness is not persuasive.

If parties honestly want to explore resolution in a negotiation setting, people skills should be the easiest part of the process.  Good manners, social skills, and professionalism should be as important as our position papers. Civility is the low-hanging fruit that enhances the effectiveness of negotiators and facilitates meaningful conflict resolution.

Thanks to William R. LaBarge, J.D. Candidate at Vermont Law School, for inspiring this post.