The Negotiation Within: Outer Ideas on Inner Dialogues

figure-at-a-window3By Jonathan R. Cohen[1]

Where there are two Jews, there are three opinions.”

When I first read Bob Bordone’s e-mail describing the symposium on “The Negotiation Within,” I was of two minds. Part of me wanted to attend. The subject was intriguing, the panelists included many old friends, and a trip back to Cambridge would be enjoyable. Yet another part of me knew that I would not go. For roughly two decades I have observed the Jewish Sabbath, and this conference, like many others, was to meet on a Saturday. My inner dialogue was brief (or so I thought at first). A Shakespearean actor might have put it thus, “To go or not to go – that is the question.” My answer: not to go.

Life, however, can be more complex than first appears, and the next morning I awoke with a number of thoughts racing through my head – specifically, ideas I might have shared had I gone to the conference. What was I to do with them? In the language of negotiation, “going” and “not going” are, of course, positions. But what interests underlay those positions? Could those interests be addressed creatively through inventing options? Yes, it was possible to observe the Jewish Sabbath and it was possible to be involved with the conference, at least in part. Perhaps I could write some ideas and send them along. Perhaps I would later read what others wrote about “The Negotiation Within” and discuss their ideas with them on different occasions. My original inner dialogue had been built around positions, but after a night’s sleep it shifted to exploring interests and options.

I suspect that in many negotiations each party is of multiple minds. Sometimes such internal division is easy to observe, as when bilateral negotiations involve principals who are groups. When a union negotiates a labor contract with management, there may be different factions within the union, each vying for different ends. Part of the union may want this. Part of the union may want that. How is the union representative to proceed?

I suspect the conventional wisdom (if such exists) is that, before entering “across the table” negotiations with management, the union should try to resolve its internal conflicts.[2] Not only would it be difficult for the union’s representative to know what to say to management if such “behind the table” conflicts are not resolved, but if such fissures are not addressed proactively, the potential exists for the other side to exploit them. Perhaps management can gain a strategic edge through offering a deal that benefits both itself and one, but not both, of the union’s factions – divide and conquer, if you will. It is not uncommon for parents of small children to encounter a similar challenge. Before deciding upon a rule for a child, it is important for both parents to be “on the same page” lest the child play the forum-selection game of shopping for rules by seeking the more lenient parent.[3]

Now let us take up the more interesting case – for it is the more common case – of when such internal fissures are not readily observable. What happens when a party entering a negotiation, or more generally making a decision, is of two (or perhaps even three or four) minds? How then is that party to proceed?

Sometimes people approach such internal negotiations in a combative way, and an internal battle of the wills ensues over which side will triumph. One might think by analogy of the famous problem of Ulysses and the Sirens, or, more generally, the “intimate contest for self-command” as Thomas Schelling put it.[4] When two parts of ourselves are in conflict with one another (in Ulysses’ case, because his current self fears that his future self will be seduced by the sound of the Sirens and thus opts to bind himself to his ship’s mast to prevent his future self from departing), the question becomes which part will prevail in the battle over what to do. Think of the dieter’s dilemma when confronted by a bowl of chocolates. “Oh, they look so good … I want to eat some,” says the voice of indulgence. “Don’t touch them,” barks the voice of restraint. The inner discourse, in other words, is built around positions.

My suggestion here is that we take some of the qualities and ideas we have learned from external negotiations and apply them to our inner dialogues. “Why do you want to eat the chocolates?” the voice of restraint might ask. “Because I’m bored,” “because I’m upset,” and “because I’m hungry” are all possible answers. Each of these answers reveals a different interest and points to different possible solutions (e.g., finding a fun activity in which to engage, finding a different way to soothe oneself, or finding a healthier food to eat). As with so many of our external negotiations, the critical question becomes whether our inner dialogues will be problem-solving ones or positional ones.

Could it be that, when all is said and done, how we talk and negotiate with other people and how we talk and negotiate within ourselves are deeply connected?I do not mean to suggest that this connection is simple.If the data point I know best – me! – is any guide, one’s outer negotiation style and one’s inner negotiation style can be quite different.The Myers-Briggs introvert that I am, it is not uncommon for my inner negotiations to be very long, but my outer negotiations brief.Nevertheless, I suspect that often there is much consistency to how we do what we do, so that how a person conducts inner conversations and how he or she approaches outer conversations will be similar.Am I optimistic that solutions can be found to difficult situations?Am I capable of listening to seemingly-incompatible views and probing for what is valid within each?Do I express myself in measured language or am I prone to hyperbole?If a person has an attitude like optimism or habits such as open-minded listening and measured speaking in one realm, I suspect it is much more likely, though not inevitable, that he or she will have them in the other realm, too.

Suppose the hypothesis is true that there is a significant connection between how we talk and negotiate within ourselves and how we talk and negotiate with others. If so, a number of lessons follow for those who teach and practice negotiation. Let me mention two. First, getting people to think about their internal negotiations may be extremely valuable in helping them to change their approach to external negotiations. Books such as Difficult Conversations (with its emphasis on examining the impact of internal identity conflicts on external negotiations) and research on topics such as the role of emotions in negotiation and mindfulness in dispute resolution have already started us down this path.[5] It is a path we should pursue further. Second, as we teach people to approach their outer negotiations in new ways, we may also indirectly be teaching them to approach their inner negotiations in new ways. Internal transformation, is not, of course, the primary aim of most negotiation courses. However, if internal and external negotiation styles are deeply linked, then as we influence the latter, we may also be influencing the former. How distinct, after all, is the internal from the external? Viewed from afar, the line between them is only skin deep.

For more on the 2010 HNLR Symposium: The Negotiation Within, click here.

1 Professor of Law, University of Florida, Levin College of Law. The author can be reached at

2 The Janus-like role of the union’s agent – negotiating both with management and with internal factions – is ultimately a very complex one. On labor negotiations specifically, see Richard Walton & Robert McKersie, A Behavioral Theory of Labor Negotiations (1965). On challenges negotiating agents face generally, see Robert H. Mnookin & Lawrence E. Susskind, Negotiating on Behalf of Others: Advice to Lawyers, Business Executives, Sports Agents, Diplomats, Politicians, and Everybody Else (1999).

3 Even where parties to negotiations are single individuals rather than groups, sometimes one party can sense the other party’s ambivalence regarding a particular issue. While at times it may be beneficial for the ambivalent party openly to share that ambivalence with the other party (for they may help one better understand or resolve it), due to the adversarial aspects of many negotiations, I believe the more typical approach is to attempt to resolve that internal ambivalence before entering the external negotiation.

4 See Jon Elster, Ulysses and the Sirens (1985) and Thomas C. Schelling, The Intimate Contest for Self-Command, in Choice and Consequence: Perspectives of an Errant Economist 57 (1984).

5 See respectively Douglas Stone et al., Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most 109-120 (1999), Roger Fisher & Daniel Shapiro, Beyond Reason: Using Negotiations as You Negotiate (2005), and Leonard Riskin, Knowing Yourself: Mindfulness, in The Negotiator’s Fieldbook 239 (Andrea Kupfer Schneider & Christopher Honeyman, eds., 2006).

Originally published to HNLR Online on Mar. 18, 2010.

2 thoughts on “The Negotiation Within: Outer Ideas on Inner Dialogues

  1. Dear Jonathan:

    thanks for your artical, i’ve enjoyed reading it. i was just wondering the artist of the above painting…thanks.


  2. Dear Prof, Jonathan
    Your article has given me food for thought. Mediators or negotiators would have to resolve their internal differences before attending to clients. There have to be self cleansing and consciousness of a kind that uplifts the veil for practitioners to behold themselves as ready instruments of service.
    There is great connection between the inner and out-ward dialogue and until Negotiators/Mediators are able to manage these dialogue positively or constructively the process of problem solving might be far-fetched.

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