The Truth about Negotiations

ATHENS – When people and countries negotiate, they often talk about their interests as though they were the only matters that could elicit agreement. In casting his veto at the European Union’s December summit in Brussels, British Prime Minister David Cameron said, “What is on offer isn’t in Britain’s interests, so I didn’t agree to it,” as if agreement solely depended upon whether or not interests were satisfied.

Then again, reaching an agreement might never have been Cameron’s goal. While so-called “win-win” outcomes are increasingly considered to be the ultimate purpose of every negotiation, what if the negotiating parties contemplate a win-win outcome that actually harms non-participants to the talks, or is against the law? What if the outcome is beneficial but contrary to the principles of the negotiating parties?

Imagine that you are at a negotiating table and want the other party to agree with you. A strategy that could work would be to stress how the outcome is beneficial to everyone involved. But the outcome you propose might not be fair, or realistic, or you might be consciously lying. So, although based on interests, such a proposal will not be easily accepted.

Indeed, when one ponders how many issues there are to consider, it becomes obvious that negotiation is a type of communication that involves far more than interests. Principles, morality, and simple respect for the truth guide agreement as much as interests do.