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  • Writer's pictureRobert Couture

A Crude Law of Social Relations

As part of my graduate work in Dispute Resolution, I worked with a professor whose mentor was Morton Deustch, a scholar who had great influence in the field. His well known adage, which came to be known as Deustch’s Crude Law of Social Relations, is: The characteristic processes and effects elicited by a given type of social relationship also tend to elicit that type of social relationship. In other words, how you treat me will tend to mirror how I treat you.

Deustch's body of work is, of course, more nuanced than that simple statement, but as a mediator and negotiator, I’ve always kept that thought in mind: Does cooperation really tend to induce friendly, helpful behavior and does friendly, helpful behavior tend to induce a cooperative relationship? For real?

And does the same apply to collective actions such as labor negotiations, for instance, or government legislative practices where the stakes are collective and not personal, at least on a basis of the individual needs of the bargainers themselves.

To my mind, the answer to that question is Yes. For better or worse, Yes. Individuals at the negotiation table ought to be able to resist personalizing their emotional responses when outcomes of bargaining affect so many others not at the bargaining table who are dependent upon professional representation of their collective needs as oppsed to the personal satisfactions of the bargainers themselves. But make no mistake, humans are emotional beings first and foremost, with varying degrees of discipline in how they manage their personal reactions to slights and favors alike. We see that over and over in government relations, etc.

As per Deustch’s Crude Law of Social Relations, if you host negotiations and position your opposite in the room so that they have sun in their eyes for the whole meeting, that will surely have some effect on the bargaining, however small it may be. And if you provide food at the table during a long negotiation as a gesture of comfort, that will also have an effect. It's not rocket science, as they say.

To my point about trust in the previous blog post, it probably mattered to US-Soviet relations that Ronald Reagan got Mikhail Gorbachev to wear a cowboy hat when Gorbachev visited Reagan's California ranch. This was not just another case of All Hat and No Cattle! That chummy moment between the two leaders probably helped foster their personal friendship and by extension the positions of their two countries toward each other as much as it signaled to the rest of the world that an important shift in international relations was taking place.

Personal relations matter, sometimes more than they should, one could argue. How many times do we hear about a legislator who changed their view on a pending public issue having to do with gender or sexual preference, for instance, because of an event that happened in their own family. Last I checked, elected officials are elected to represent the needs of their constituents, a large group with presumably a cross-set of interests based on varied cultural influences, not the elected official's own family, per se. How many times do you hear, "I have come to a reckoning about the rights of gay people as a result of my daughter coming out and needing our family's love and support. I now support equal treatment for all , no matter their sexual preferences."

My response would be, "Well, it's terrific that you're experiencing a certain personal transcendence in support of your family. But given that you were elected to represent a whole bunch of us in this state, I would think your powers of rational empathy would necessarily be focused on us as part of your job and not necessarily those of your family, first."

But I digress. Emotions in negotiations matter. And, emotions are personal by definition. One prominent labor negotiator told me that, “On some level, someone on the opposite side of the bargaining table has to want to do a deal with you. If everyone hates your guts, good luck to you.”

In my experience, one may fancy themself the smartest guy in the room and therefore the most dominant bargainer, but that does not always buy influence, especially when it concerns humiliation of your bargaining counterpart. I've never seen anyone react to such with gratitude: “Thank you for showing me how ignorant and deficient I am, especially in front of all the people who need to know. Were it not for you, I personally might never have known how stupid I am.”

Emotions matter, no matter who you are or how disciplined you fancy yourself to be. If you want to make an enemy for life, humiliate them in front of their peers. If you want to blow up a deal, put your finger in the eye of your counterpart across the bargaining table.

Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service Mediator, Moira Caruso, says In Episode III, In the Middle: “Understanding emotion, working with emotion, accepting that we are emotional human beings before we're anything else, I think is really important. It's interesting to me that I get asked about emotion almost everywhere I go. And I think that's because something is triggered in us when we're bargaining. Something to our core that has to do with survival and our ability to provide for ourselves and our loved ones. To act like that doesn't exist, isn't going to work for us. And that's in fact, I think, where we see a lot of things bubble up and then blow up at the table. When I see someone suppressing it and blowing up in the room, I encourage them to find a way to articulate how upset they are in words that the other party will hear. I think that's the most effective way to deal with it. Not to hide the fact that you're getting upset, is really calling it out. ‘I am upset and we have to work through this if we're to make progress anywhere. And sometimes, in fact, that's something that a mediator can do.’

If someone who is extremely emotional and upset is not hearing anything, that's something that I can work with in the other party's room. And I don't have to focus on emotion at all. I can focus on the outcomes, or lack of outcomes, that we are seeing, and honestly ask the party if there's something that they can adjust to—maybe have their message or their proposal be a little bit better heard and understood—so that we can get back to talking business.”

So here, the mediator provides a safe haven in the caucus room so that the offended or “emotional” individual can “hear” salient points being discussed outside the storm of emotional reaction. Being heard is a close kin to being understood, and by extension validated.

Moira Caruso continues: “You have to be able to listen. Listening is hard work. It's one thing to say, 'Oh I'm a good listener.' When I talk to people about how to listen and how I listen, you want to finish this sentence: ‘What are you listening for?’ So, if you're showing up listening for opportunities, listening for something to build on, you're listening to one party for something that the other party cannot necessarily agree to, whole scale, but there's something in there that can be built upon. Or there is some sort of signal or message that might be room for movement, or there might be something that could be tailored about a proposal or an option to be a little bit more suitable.

Agreement is something that you build. That's how I look at it. It's not what's left after everyone's done ripping each other apart. It's something that you build incrementally with each exchange. And listening, I think is the most important thing. Not just getting agreement, but getting agreement and preserving, or even improving upon, the relationship.

When I think about how parties begin, oftentimes on gaining something, or more importantly, not giving something up. And if we can get some incremental movement early on to create a little bit of momentum, there's a point where the emphasis shifts a little bit, ever so slightly. But it matters. Winning and losing, working together towards some common goal. I can speak for myself: I'm hyper focused in the beginning on those little wins or ways that parties show up and be what they're saying, and what they're putting forward is putting them in a little bit more positive light. Even just the way a proposal is presented can start to do that. Pointing to the areas in that proposal that were responsive to what you heard from the other party, in the last joint session, is the smallest thing that you can imagine. And you might think that it's obvious. But articulating it at the outset of your presentation can have all the difference in how that next exchange goes. And that's seemingly a little thing, but it's not nothing to me.

Some people and personalities prove a lot more challenging than others. And I get frustrated just like anyone else does. There's a saying [about mediators]: ‘We're neutral, we're not neutered.’

We talk about unconditional love, love that isn't dependent on anything: the day of the week, how the person behaves, what they believe. The term [for mediators] is ‘unconditional welcome.’ You don't have to like someone to be able to work with them, you just have to show them some grace. You don't even have to be tolerant.

But if you show everyone the same kind of welcome, as if they deserve to be there, because they do, it's this magic thing that helps you see them in a different light. So, you think about the most extreme types of folks and things that they do that really bug you. Anti-vaxxers. That's not the most extreme, but a lot of folks have a hard time believing that someone could be against a vaccine that could greatly improve public health. If you could see them in a way that allows for the reality that something's happened in their life to where they just don't feel like they can trust the government—and it's probably perfectly valid—then it really helps in terms of how you have to work with that person. And in collective bargaining, we don't really get a divorce. You have to work with them.”

About communication style, Moira says:

"It's not just the selection of words; it's the ordering of things. And it's what you include and what you don't include. A common misconception that I hear early on is that we should avoid telling the other party that X-Y-Z just isn't going to work for us because that means we're not bargaining in good faith. Not being honest when you are having a hard time with someone's proposal and not outlining what is problematic with that. That presents its own set of problems. That could be labeled as dishonesty or proceeding in bad faith, and then giving us the bad news at the last minute when there's nothing that we can do about it. So, that's all part of communication. It's not just the words that we choose and the perfect phraseology, so to speak. There are a million different choices and decisions that you can make when working with someone."


Are there times when zero-sum distributive bargaining is a necessary part of productive negotiations?

Moira Caruso:

"There's a misperception that mediators walk around, telling people they have to engage in collaborative bargaining if they need to engage in good productive bargaining. And that's not the case. There are situations where there simply is a pie, short of having a bake-sale and finding more money. There are times when there's the money that you have, and that has to be distributed. So, you hear me talking a lot about money, and referring to money. Money is the quintessential distributive topic. You can certainly generate more money under certain circumstances, but usually we have a purse, and that has a fixed amount of money in it. Whether that goes to salary, whether that goes to benefits, whether that goes to something...But it does have to go somewhere. And so that's a good example of something that is almost purely distributive."


I’m also interested in the relationship between integrative bargaining and distributive bargaining. I would think the mediator has a way of bringing more integrative processes to the negotiations.

Moira Caruso:

"Sure. I think you could start even broader. We bring process, period. And then, where that can be more integrative, that's fantastic. Transformational, great. And hopefully, to hearken back to an earlier answer, hopefully you are building something together, building a stronger relationship, building more trust to when it does need to get distributive, your back doesn't get up quite as quickly. Or maybe it does get up, but that's not insurmountable. And so, you've laid a foundation to engagemore productively when things turn more distributive.”

And my last word on the subject today is: If you can put yourself in a position where you are the one to bring in food for the group, do it. That whole “breaking bread together” concept is not just hyperbole. There is a real advantageous effect, in my opinion, if you are in the business of fostering meaningful agreements.

In my next post, I will discuss ideas about building a contract at the bargaining table with the goal of creating "buy-in" and by extension, a durable agreement.


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