the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School (www.pon.harvard.edu)
Greg and Rita, a married couple with two young children, find their relationship strained when Greg's widowed mother becomes very ill. With Greg, an only child, spending most of his free time at his mother's bedside, Rita complains that he is neglecting their family. "I'd love to have more family time," Greg says, "but I need to spend as much time as possible with my mother before she dies." The argument escalates, and the atmosphere in the house grows tense.
As negotiators, we're trained to believe that almost every issue is ripe for trade-offs and concessions. At the same time, most of us hold core values we believe to be nonnegotiable. Your family's welfare, your personal code of ethics or your religious and political beliefs may be strictly off-limits in any given negotiation.
There's nothing wrong with maintaining the courage of your convictions, but negotiators often harm themselves and others by refusing to compromise in the face of destructive conflict. Given Rita's objections, we might expect Greg to agree to devote two evenings every week to his family, or some other compromise. But because Greg views his obligation to his mother to be sacred, he may be unwilling to entertain such a seemingly rational resolution.
How can you persuade other negotiators to bend on the issues that matter most to them? How might you benefit from greater flexibility on your own core values?
To answer such questions, a team of researchers led by Jeremy Ginges of the New School for Social Research and Scott Atran of the University of Michigan examined one of the most protracted, violent disputes over sacred values in modern times: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Their 2004-2008 survey of nearly 4,000 Palestinians and Israelis offers new hope for peace in the Middle East, and for people everywhere who are caught in entrenched conflicts.
Dealing with moral logic
Working with Douglas Medin (Northwestern University) and Khalil Shikaki (Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research), Ginges and Atran surveyed three groups of West Bank and Gaza citizens with strong opinions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: Jewish Israeli settlers, Palestinian refugees and Palestinian student supporters of Hamas.
The respondents were presented with a proposal that would require their side to make a concession on a key issue in exchange for lasting peace in the region, as follows:
-- The Israeli settlers were given a proposal that would require Israeli withdrawal from 99 percent of the West Bank and Gaza in return for peace.
-- The Palestinian refugees were given a peace deal that would require them to forfeit their right of return to Israel and to accept two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
-- The Palestinian students were given a deal that called for recognition of the legitimacy of the State of Israel in exchange for peace.
Members of all three groups roundly rejected these proposals. Even in light of the promise of peace, many of them viewed the packages as unacceptable violations of their sacred, nonnegotiable values.
Would financial incentives sweeten the pot, the researchers wondered? No. Israelis and Palestinians alike were outraged when significant economic assistance for their side was added to the peace proposals; they were repulsed by the notion of trading sacred values for money. The "moral logic" underlying these positions can seem irrational to outsiders, Ginges and Atran wrote in a January 2009 New York Times op-ed piece, which may explain in part why past peace interventions have failed.
Finding common ground
But the researchers found a chink in their respondents' moral logic when they added a different type of deal sweetener to the proposals: a difficult concession from the other side on one of its own sacred values.
Suddenly, nonnegotiable positions softened. The Israeli settlers agreed to make concessions if Hamas and other Palestinian groups explicitly accepted Israel's right to exist. The Palestinian refugees grew more flexible if Israelis were willing to give up what they believed to be their sacred right to the West Bank. And the Palestinian students expressed flexibility if the Israelis offered an official apology for Palestinian suffering in the conflict.
Interestingly, in separate discussions with the researchers, Hamas deputy chairman Mousa Abu Marzook and former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu each expressed a willingness to concede on their sacred values in exchange for similar compromises from the other side.
The value of symbolic concessions
Unlike tangible concessions such as money, apologies and recognition can't be precisely weighed and compared. Yet this study's results suggest that if you want to resolve an intractable conflict over sacred values, you should offer a symbolic concession of your own.
Returning to our married couple, it seems clear Rita won't get very far by arguing with Greg about how much time he should spend with his dying mother. But here's what might happen if Rita engaged her husband at a deeper level:
"I appreciate how important it is that you be there for your mother," Rita says. "You're her only living family member. I believe that our own family should be our overall top priority, but I can accept that you need to put your mom first right now."
"I really appreciate that," Greg says. "I agree that our family comes first, but like you say, Mom is all alone right now. Still, I know I need to do a better job of balancing."
They might then move on to a discussion of schedules and logistics. By conceding on a sacred issue, Rita prompted Greg to reciprocate with greater flexibility -- a wise strategy to apply the next time you feel trapped in a dispute over core values.