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Negotiation Strategies
January 2018
To Talk or Not to Talk - That is the Question
On the Value of Dialogue and Talk for Its Own Sake
Dear Clients and Friends,

With the recent developments in North and South Korea with talks happening for the first time in years, I decided to write the January 2018 column on the value of talk and dialogue. Whether in our personal, business, or international relationships, talk can transform the way we interact and communicate, as outlined in this column

For your reading convenience, this column is also summarized in the Lessons Learned bullet points at the bottom of the page.

With Best Wishes for the New Year!

Raphael Lapin
To Talk or Not to Talk - That is the Question
On the Value of Dialogue and Talk for Its Own Sake
Introduction
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (December 27 th 2017) presented an interesting international debate between Germany (together with some other NATO allies) and the U.S. as to whether to engage in dialogue with Russia about NATO-Russia issues. The debate pivots on whether talk with Russia will help or hinder the future defense and interests of the NATO alliance, given what many see as Russia’s aggressive stance towards Ukraine.

The article states that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers recently that Washington didn’t want regular meetings with Russia “just to talk”. Instead, he said, that the U.S supports “a dialogue with results expected” (emphasis by this author).  

Germany, on the other hand, says it remains open to dialogue and in fact recent meetings have allowed the two sides to openly exchange views on difficult and controversial issues.

This difference between the U.S. position and that of Germany, reflect two divergent views on the value of dialogue and talk for its own sake, even when tangible results may not necessarily be the outcome, or even the intent.

Similar divergent views are expressed in an article in the New York Times (January 3 rd) about the Korean Peninsula crisis. With regards to the U.S. position on talks with North Korea the article states: “For months, it (the United States) has said that talks with North Korea would make no sense until its leader, Mr. Kim, at least curbs his provocative behavior, or at best agrees to relinquish his nuclear arsenal”. Whereas South Korea (as I write this column) are engaged in talks with the North, not about denuclearization, but of all things, the winter Olympic games that commence in Seoul next month. 

South Korea recognizes the value of unconditional dialogue and talk even when not necessarily results oriented, where the U.S. insists on results driven talks with expectations and preconditions.

(For a further example of this consistent divergence of approaches see:  “Maintaining an Open Mind in Negotiations: A Lesson from Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov”)

Below are a few good reasons that talk and dialogue for their own sake, are of great value.
Talk Breaks Down Walls
In situations of conflict, parties tend to dehumanize one another as each perceives the other as the villain. Without communication between the parties, those negative perceptions tend to be reinforced, which in turn risk an escalation of the conflict, as trust erodes and misunderstandings assume catastrophic proportions. We experienced this during the cold war and are living it now with North Korea and the United States.

Conversely, when talk occurs, the dehumanization and negative perceptions of one another is decreased. Each sees an actual and real human being on the other side with their own fears, needs and constraints.  Walls are chipped away and doors may potentially be cracked open.

A poignant example of this was the eventual dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. Until 1985, there was no communication at all between the ANC (African National Congress led by Nelson Mandela) and the South African Nationalist Government. Each saw the other as the devil with hatred and suspicions high and trust low.

Then in 1985, Mandela decided to take the first steps towards negotiations on his own, and wrote a secret letter to South Africa’s Minister of Justice, Kobie Coetzee. He offered to meet Coetzee in private to discuss how negotiations might begin. He received no response, but at least talk had begun.

Several weeks later, when Mandela was allowed out of prison for routine surgery, Coetzee unexpectedly dropped by to visit him as if they were old acquaintances. Mandela writes about that visit: “Coetzee’s visit was an olive branch” although nothing of substance was discussed during that visit.

It was those early “nothing of substance” words that were the beginning of the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa.
Talk Uncovers Useful Information
In a negotiation between a buyer and prospective seller over a real estate purchase that I was involved in, the seller was resisting any offer proposed by the buyer despite displaying a clear intent to sell. As a result, the buyer perceived the seller to be greedy, unreasonable, unrealistic, and assumed her motivations were entirely money driven. The negotiations were at an impasse. The buyer, faced with this impasse, was at his wits end and was about to walk away from this deal.
 
As the negotiation advisor for the buyer, I knew that if these negotiations were to be salvaged at all, I could not allow the parties to walk away. I needed to keep them engaged in talks, no matter how little substantive gains may appear to be achieved. The doors of communication had to remain open no matter how insignificant the communication might be, even just to meet periodically to see if any new ideas were generated or minds perhaps altered. 
 
By keeping the channels of communication open and engaging in talk, important information emerged. It turned out that her resistance was not about money at all, but rather about an attachment to the property tied to many rich childhood memories, that she was loathe to abandon. This nugget of information turned out to be the golden key with which to unlock the stalled negotiations. 
 
Talking and engaging in dialogue, even without any expected result, often produces invaluable information which can unlock seemingly intractable impasses and advance the negotiations. 
Talk Reduces Conflict and Tensions
When conflict, whether in the workplace, in business, in societies or between nations, remains unchecked and is not contained, the risk of escalation and even violence increases. It is through talk and dialogue that these tensions are managed and reduced.
 
The year of 2006 had been Iraq’s most violent, and a devastating civil war was imminent.  In September 2007, Padraig O’Malley, a veteran peacemaker with experience in the conflicts of Northern Ireland and South Africa decided to introduce talk and dialogue into the Iraqi civil society. His experience had taught him that talk in war-torn societies, could help them shed their distrust, build relationships and unharden their hearts. He brought together over a dozen Iraqis across the sectarian divide in Helsinki and included former heads of the IRA and the African National Congress to help facilitate the talks. The purpose of these talks was not to hammer out an agreement, but just to get Iraqis talking.
 
By the end of the talks, the Iraqis had agreed to seventeen principles, ranging from respect for minority rights to reintegrating ex-Baathists back into government. A dangerous and violent civil war was averted through the tool of talk!
 
It is important to note however, that talk and dialogue is not just about sitting around a table. It is about learning; being prepared to change the way we think and communicate with one another; and requires a spirit of inquiry and constructive curiosity. It is that kind of talk and dialogue that can transform our relationships on the individual, national and international levels. 
Lessons Learned
  • Dialogue and talk for its own sake, even when tangible results may not necessarily be the outcome, or even the intent, is nevertheless of great value.
  • Talk decreases the dehumanization and negative perceptions of one another.
  • Talk causes walls to be chipped away and doors to potentially crack open.
  • Talking even without any expected result, often produces invaluable information which can unlock seemingly intractable impasses and advance the negotiations.
  • When conflict, whether in the workplace, in business, in societies or between nations, is not contained, the risk of escalation and even violence increases.
  • Talk manages and reduces tensions, conflict and dangerous escalation.
  • Talk is about learning; being prepared to change the way we think and communicate with one another; and requires a spirit of inquiry and constructive curiosity.
  • Talk can transform our relationships on the individual, national and international levels.
Lapin Negotiation Services offers training, consulting, advising and executive coaching in negotiation, business diplomacy and dispute resolution services.

Our proprietary and aggressively results oriented services are designed to help your leadership, teams and individuals master the essential negotiation, relationship-building and conflict management skills that increase revenues, decrease the high cost of conflict and build strong working relationships.
Learn more about Raphael Lapin's book, "Working with Difficult People" by clicking on the image above
Our Skilled Specialists will:
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