Every day we are faced with the potential for conflict. Too often, these conflicts descend into nasty encounters. Each side becomes intransigent, heels dug firmly in. These lose-lose battles are unnecessary as long as the parties have access to a few simple negotiation strategies.
One cuts, the other chooses
As a young father, I dreaded the post-dinner routine of serving ice cream to my four kids. Every night witnessed the same outcome: “Eamonn got more than me” or “Maura got the largest bowl” or “I got more than you!”
Then I attended the Harvard Program on Negotiation. I came home armed with many negotiation strategies, including “one cuts, the other chooses.”
Each night thereafter, one child would serve the ice cream into four bowls. After my three other children picked the bowl of their choice, the server ate from the remaining bowl. The dessert routine went from being stressful to being quite entertaining as my wife and I witnessed each night a different child serve the ice cream with excruciating care to ensure that he or she was not left with a smaller bowl.
Eventually my kids got tired of this pressure-packed routine and asked that I once again serve the ice cream. Thereafter, they never once complained of an unfairly served bowl.
Expanding the pie
Disputes often arise over how to “split the pie.” Imagine a situation where there are eight slices of “pie” and three deserving parties. Impasse results. However, new options immediately emerge as the pie is expanded. Cutting the pie into 24 slices and giving eight to each of the three solves the problem nicely.
Or — to continue with the metaphor — offer larger scoops of ice cream or slices of cheddar cheese to the party receiving the two slices instead of three. Further “expand the pie” by combining it with entree options. Whoever takes the three slices of pie gets the chicken or pasta entree; whoever takes the two slices, gets the halibut or the filet mignon.
You get the idea. These kinds of strategies could be applied to any “split the pie” challenge.
The Parable of the Camel Driver
A camel driver willed half his estate to his oldest son, a third to his middle son and a ninth to his youngest son. Unfortunately, his estate consisted of seventeen camels — a real problem for the boys! As they argued vehemently, a stranger with a single camel passed by and inquired what was the matter. Upon hearing of their difficulty, he gave them his camel. After thanking the stranger and accepting his camel, the sons immediately agreed that the oldest should have nine of the eighteen camels; the middle son, six; and the youngest, two. They then returned the remaining camel to the stranger, who went on his way.
– Thanks for the parable to my good friend, Angel Sanchez Huerta
Parables are illustrative. So are real stories. Two of my neighbors shared a driveway. At the time they split the cost of the snow plow, 50%-50%. The challenge was that one-third of the driveway was on one property, two-thirds on the other.
A dispute arose when the one neighbor refused to pay more than the 33% of the snow plow bill. In retaliation, the other neighbor put up a fence along the property line, cutting the driveway into two sections, one too narrow to drive a car on. This required the other neighbor to cut down a magnificent tree that both neighbors — indeed, the whole neighborhood — loved in order to make room for a new driveway.
This was a classic lose-lose situation. Fighting over 17% of the snow plow bill — a mere few hundred dollars a year — resulted in spending thousands — maybe tens of thousands — of dollars. On the one hand, there were survey costs and fence installation; on the other, tree removal and driveway construction. Going forward, each had to pay 100% of their own snow plow bill!
My neighbors began their relationship nicely with an expanded view of the “pie.” Sadly, they narrowed the pie and paid dearly for their rigid thinking.
Split the difference
Splitting the difference simply requires that negotiators measure what separates them and then divide that remainder equally — that is, to meet half way. Consider the following two very different examples.
Strategic planning requires setting performance targets. This can be difficult when planning with teams. Some members want to set stretch targets that are aspirational; others, incremental targets that are achievable. Using “split the difference” typically resolves these divergent views. Some members want a target of 85; others, 95; everyone else is in between. Can the team support a target of 90? The answer is almost always, “Yes.” And when it’s not, there is a good reason to have a more in depth negotiation.
Upon returning from one of my three training sessions at the Program on Negotiation, I went directly to a soccer field where my young children were scheduled to play. Ironically, a dispute was underway. Two games were scheduled for the same field at the same time: a youth soccer game and an adult league softball game. Both coaches were predictably dug in. It appeared that no soccer or softball games would be played that day. However, after some gentle prodding, both coaches accepted a “split the difference” solution. After calculating the time remaining and what was possible,
- The soccer team agreed to play a shortened game with running time and no breaks for half time.
- The softball team agreed to play the minimum number of innings required for an official game.
The adults generously agreed to let the younger kids play first. Problem solved.