Fear in intractable negotiations

In the book we briefly refer to a couple of intractable negotiations (e.g. abortion, climate change, gun control). The purpose is not to take a stand on the issues (we let others do that), but rather to illustrate what techniques might be applied to move both polarised parties in each of these negotiations towards agreement.

One of the techniques described in the book is chunking, where we break a large issue into smaller pieces (see it applied to gun control in this earlier post). This process often results in several pieces that parties find trivial to agree on. This enables progress, and fewer issues remain to be resolved. Whether or not this process results in agreement on all issues is immaterial. The point is that we are much better off than before, when we were deadlocked arguing “yes” or “no” for the giant topic of gun control.

Consistent with the technique of chunking, the Obama administration yesterday announced measures aimed at limiting access to firearms for the mentally ill. Agreement on this piece would benefit everyone and would not negatively affect gun advocates in any material way. Logically we might then expect agreement on the issue.

But we haven’t yet accounted for another important element; fear. Specifically fear of the slippery slope. Gun advocates may fear that agreeing on this option now somehow sets a process in motion that could result in them losing all rights to guns in the future. In other words, that agreeing to anything might mean they have to agree to everything. And when fear is an element in the negotiation, it often trumps everything else.

As negotiators, when we identify fear we also seek to address it. While for the affected person fear is merely a feeling, negotiators know that fear is caused by unmet needs. Often the unmet need is the perceived lack of certainty. People will fear the worst-case scenario because they don’t perceive adequate assurances that the worst-case scenario won’t happen.

So that’s one additional thing that gun advocates need here; assurances that their perceived worst-case scenario won’t happen.

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