The Master Negotiator’s Simple, Powerful Tool: Fairness

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    When you and your counterpart want opposite things—More! No, Less!—it makes negotiating much more challenging. Fairness not only helps you overcome this obstacle, but use it skillfully, and your counterpart will want to work with you again and again.


    The Master Negotiator’s Simple, Powerful Tool: Fairness

    One of the most challenging aspects of negotiation is that we often have “opposing” interests: On one or more levels, we want opposite things:

    -We want to pay our employees as little as we can, and they want the highest salary they can get.
    -We want the project completed immediately, and our vendor wants as much time as possible to finish it.
    -We want our licensing agreement to be narrow in scope, and our licensee wants it to be broad.

    The best way to resolve these tensions is a simple and unexpectedly powerful tool: fairness

    Because human beings evolved to live in small groups, fairness has a deep, instinctual, animal appeal to us: fairness signals that when there are resources to be divided, we’ll get our share.

    Brain researchers have even demonstrated that a fair distribution of resources can be more satisfying, more neurologically rewarding, than getting more for ourselves!

    In one-off negotiations, it’s fine to go for a “steal” in which we get more value than might be considered “fair.”

    But when efficiency and particularly when a long term relationship with our counterpart are important, savvy negotiators use fairness to create sound agreements and engender trust and respect. That’s the big win!

    How do we apply fairness in real-time conflict resolution? By identifying what we call legitimate, or fair, standards. More on that next time.

10 responses to The Master Negotiator’s Simple, Powerful Tool: Fairness

  1. Rudi says:

    Thanks Richard. These posts are great!

    I just read a story about educators acting out stealing scenarios using puppets in front of toddlers. Without prompting, the little ones attempted to make restorations to the injured parties. Indeed, from a very early age, fairness seems to be a powerful feeling/instinct for us. I look forward to your next post.

    1. Richard Cohen says:

      Thanks for writing, Rudi. Yes, the appeal of fairness is built into who we are. Now, if we can just get some adults to behave like those toddlers, we’ll be all set.

  2. Marty Cohen says:

    Simple concept but wise–particularly if you want a sustained relationship.

    Your secret admirer.

    1. Richard Cohen says:

      Thanks. Simple to understand; hard to apply well.

      I’ll do my best to try to figure out who you are…

  3. Karen Cone says:

    Richard…please keep bringing us these messages. On even my busiest days, I always stop a moment to listen to your great approach. I look forward to your next email!! Thanks so much, Karen

    1. Richard Cohen says:

      Thanks for the support, Karen. It makes a difference to me to know that these posts are useful to you.

  4. ed lake says:

    a word with different meaning to people in various cultures. Curious to see how you pull it together

    1. Richard Cohen says:

      Say more Ed…

  5. Jason DelPorto says:

    Interesting installment Richard. As you can imagine, this comes up a lot for students and parents when administrators are dealing with discipline, grades, IEPs etc. Fairness is not always equal and parents/students are not privy to the whole picture thus requiring people to take a leap of faith or argue and appeal decisions. This is a constant challenge.

    1. Richard Cohen says:

      Yes, makes sense. This is difficult work. It’s very hard to argue with fairness though, particularly in the abstract; that you want to come up with something “fair.” The devil’s in the details, and so figuring out what “fair” means in each context is where the work lies (see the upcoming post for more on how to do this). Certainly you have many fair standards you can employ—grades and other data, past practice, relevant laws, etc. Thanks for writing!

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