Reasonable Minds Will Differ

by Marie Hamm

Fanieul Hall, the Old North Church, Mike's Pastry! Boston is my very favorite AALL locale, so when I was awarded a VALL grant to attend I did a little happy dance.  Connecting with colleagues and countless cannoli? It's a win-win! Which brings me to the story of how Gail Zwirner and I teamed up to sell a used Mustang to an anonymous firm librarian in a three minute transaction in the Hynes Convention Center. . .

The principles of Fisher and Ury's Getting to Yes came to life in a session entitled Reasonable Minds Will Differ: So Why Not Work Together to Resolve Conflict? Moderated by VALL President Suzanne Corriell, and presented by former University of Richmond School of Law Dean John Douglass.

In a deja vu moment for anyone who took a negotiations class in law school, participants were handed a hypothetical. One party was a used car salesman who needed to close a deal; the other needed a new ride at a reasonable price. Each essentially had a bottom line and a top dollar—a BATNA (Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement) as Fisher and Ury would term it. And the negotiating began. Snippets of conversations around the room reflected typical used car salesman tactics. (I'd get fired if I let it off the lot for that; this car has the best safety record of any car ever made!)

The three minute brouhaha was an example of tradition zero sum gain. Anything that one person gets has to be taken away from the other person. Dean Douglass referred to this as Miranda Rule approach to negotiating (anything you say can and will be used against you!) All too often effective communication falls by the wayside as this positional bargaining takes root in our everyday conflicts. A battle of wills ensues. The prevailing party is simply the one who holds out the longest.

The second scenario started out in much the same way. Two customers walk into a corner grocery. Each has been sent to buy an orange. Not surprisingly, there is only ONE orange available within a gazillion mile radius. (Also not surprisingly, the price on the only orange in town suddenly goes up quite considerably.)

One customer needs the orange for her neighbor, who in turn must have it to bake his famous orange cake for the orphans. The other must have it so that his ill-tempered boss will be able to enjoy his required morning orange smoothie. A couple of animated phone calls later we learn more about the underlying needs of each party. It becomes clear that the neighbor only needs the zest of the orange, while the employee merely requires the juice.

The lesson, of course, is that there is an alternative to positional bargaining. By focusing on needs rather than positions, the possibility of not only solving the conflict but also of reaching a common goal develops. The elusive win-win.

I returned from Boston exhausted, but invigorated. The time spent catching up with colleagues, communicating with vendors, and making new connections was invaluable and I’m truly grateful to VALL and the grants committee for the opportunity to attend.

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