From intra-family quarrels and disagreements between friends, to business disputes, clashes between employers and employees, deadlocks between members of different political parties, and litigated cases of all kinds, what lies at the heart of conflict is often not that which is expressed or articulated. This may lead individuals, attorneys, parties, and other stakeholders to believe that differences are insurmountable.
To an impartial and objective observer such as a mediator, however, it is often apparent that there may be a significant amount of overlap – or at least no actual conflict – between the parties’ underlying needs, interests and values. What creates the conflict is instead the parties’ implementation of vastly different strategies to achieve those interests. Understanding the underlying values and interests of your negotiating partner, and reframing the argument to appeal to those values and interests, can lay the groundwork for successful bridge-building.
What’s Your Ethical Code?
Social psychologist Matt Feinberg of the University of Toronto and sociologist Robb Willer of Stanford University have conducted studies on how people of differing political persuasions can shift the perspective of their conversation partners.
Much of contemporary American political rhetoric is characterized by liberals and conservatives advancing arguments for the morality of their respective political positions. However, research suggests such moral rhetoric is largely ineffective for persuading those who do not already hold one’s position because advocates advancing these arguments fail to account for the divergent moral commitments that undergird America’s political divisions.
In other words, “[o]ne reason [converting people from the ‘other side’ to a new way of seeing things] is so hard to do […] is that people tend to present their arguments in a way that appeals to the ethical code of their own side, rather than that of their opponents.” (The Atlantic, “The Simple Psychological Trick to Political Persuasion”, February 1, 2017.)
For instance, when recounting pivotal moments in their lives, liberals rely more on the harm and fairness moral foundations than conservatives, whereas conservatives rely more on the loyalty, authority, and purity foundations (McAdams et al., 2008). Similarly, sermons in liberal church congregations tended to employ more themes around the harm and fairness moral foundations than did sermons in conservative congregations. Conversely, sermons in conservative congregations were grounded in more conservative moral foundations (e.g., authority, purity) than sermons in liberal congregations (Graham et al., 2009). Liberal and conservative political arguments likely reflect these differences in morality as well, with liberals basing their arguments in the more liberal foundations and conservatives basing their arguments in the more conservative foundations.
The study found that “both liberals and conservatives composed persuasive messages that reflected their own moral values, not values unique to those who typically would oppose the political stance.” It has been theorized that this is due to a moral “empathy gap” – the inability to comprehend moral world views different from one’s own. This gap prevents individuals from achieving the perspective needed to craft an argument that appeals to the convictions of those with different moral values.
Perhaps the most interesting finding of the study: The same moral arguments “reframed to appeal to the values of the intended audience (those who typically oppose the political position that the messenger is arguing in favor of)” were typically more effective.
For example, the researchers posed the question of whether English should be the official language of the United States. The more liberal participants were, the more likely it was that they would be persuaded by a “fairness” argument, which stated that making English the official language would lead to more fair outcomes for immigrants and help them avoid discrimination. The more conservative participants were, the more likely it was that they would be persuaded by a “group loyalty” argument, which stated that the English language is something that unifies Americans and is a fundamental part of a larger cultural assimilation process.
The authors conclude that:
Morality contributes to political polarization because moral convictions lead individuals to take absolutist stances and refuse to compromise. Recognizing morality’s influence on political attitudes, our research presents a means for political persuasion that, rather than challenging one’s moral values, incorporates them into the argument. As a result, individuals see value in an opposing stance, reducing the attitudinal gap between the two sides. This technique not only substantiates the power of morality to shape political thought but also presents a potential means for political coalition formation.
So what is a negotiator to do?
First, listen to understand, rather than to respond. Ask questions that will take you past stated hard-line positions and try to uncover that which may not be articulated.
Second, keep in mind that it is not necessary to agree, or to affirm the “correctness” of your negotiating partner’s underlying interests. What is important is to reach an understanding of those interests.
Third, attempt to reframe your argument in such a way that it will satisfy not someone who thinks like you, but instead the identified values, needs or interests of your negotiating partner.
For example, the position taken by an injured claimant in a medical malpractice case may be that the claimant be paid a vast sum of money and that the allegedly at-fault physician must be disciplined. Countering with the position that the demand is too high and that the physician made no mistake is not likely to lead to a negotiated settlement. However, if the claimant’s underlying interest is the ability to pay outstanding medical bills and to plan for future bills (financial security), coupled with a desire to have the physician acknowledge her mistake (personal responsibility), both underlying goals may be achieved by other means.
Whether it boils down to a fundamental moral value such as (e.g. loyalty or fairness), a specific need (e.g. recognition), or an underlying interest (e.g. financial security), these are the areas that lend themselves to building bridges and closing the empathy gap.
We could all benefit from a little bit more of that these days.