What comes to mind when you think of the word ‘negotiation’?

For many, this word conjures up bargaining, the wrestle to do better than your opponent, the need to tightly control information so that we don’t undermine our position, the belief that what the other side gains we lose. In our mind’s eye, we may picture the challenge of buying a used car from a stranger.

On the other hand, we may suspect that if we could collaborate with our negotiating partner we might both get a better deal. However, to do so means we need to risk exchanging information and this requires a willingness to interact with the other side in ways that may make us feel vulnerable.

The sociologist Goffman wrote about this situation in terms of face. Each of us in interaction maintains a face, how we want to appear to the other. We take positions intended to influence the thinking of our negotiating partner and conceal our real interests, perhaps the real value to us of the object of negotiation. This can easily lead to a stand-off with no deal or a deal that leaves substantial value on the table. The parties must therefore find a way to manage changes in face in ways in which promote collaboration.

Goffman conceived of interaction as a performance. There is front of stage where we interact and negotiate and there is back of stage where we prepare and rehearse our performance. In Front Stage the challenge is to manage face (how we represent) and interpret cues (how our audience is responding). As the interaction evolves, there is the delicate task of droppings one’s guard and adapting to change. This is conducted by the way of collusive communication, a guarded step-by-step movement towards revealing true interests.

Collusive communication is not necessarily easy, especially when parties are in conflict or dispute and the basis for trust weak. We may therefore resort to agents who can negotiate dispassionately on our behalf. But can agents effectively collaborate unless they can command the trust and confidence of both parties?

Goffman addresses this dilemma by proposing a third intervention, a mediator who can perform a discrepant role in being privy to the dark and strategic secrets that each side holds. Addressing parties separately (in cacus) provides an opportunity for the mediator to help both sides (Back Stage) to prepare effectively for joint meetings (Front Stage). A mediator becomes a facilitator of collusive communication, creating the conditions which enable interests to be surfaced. Furthermore, a mediator can assist in the interpretation of cues by underpinning listening and inviting refelection.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life.

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