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Negotiation: Discussion or Debate?

November 29, 2011
An important consideration for any negotiator should be the extent to which they see their interactions as a mission to improve, or to impose.
 
In a discussion, the parties hold points of view, but are potentially open to learning from alternative perspectives that may result in an improved position or solution. There are no winners and losers in a discussion.
 
Debates, on the other hand,  are marked by an adversarial approach where each party comes equipped to promote their position and to undermine that of the other side. Indeed, debates are marked by ‘sides’ – in much the same way as we often depict negotiations – and are not designed to generate added-value outcomes.
 
In essence, these distinct approaches represent the difference between collaborative and adversarial negotiation. Most negotiators say they prefer collaborative, win-win negotiation. Yet as I reflect on most negotiation planning, it bears the hallmarks of debate rather than discussion; a pre-planned justification for a fixed position, which they will then justify through ‘obfuscation, exaggeration and selective use of facts and which is maintained regardless of what others say’.
 
Negotiators need to reflect on these questions. Are they discussing or debating? Is the approach they are taking appropriate to the goals they actually want to achieve? To what extent is their negotiating style reducing the possibility of an improved outcome?
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