Negotiation vs. Conflict Management

Learning OUtcomes

  • Discuss how negotiating is different from managing conflict

We negotiate every day. We might be looking for a better job, trying to purchase a used car, or walking down the street on the right side and seeing someone coming right toward us, seemingly unwilling to step to the left. We don’t necessarily think about whether we won or lost a negotiation when we step to the left and let the walker pass, but it’s a negotiation, nonetheless.

Negotiation is the process of discussing each individual’s position on a topic and attempting to reach a solution that benefits both parties. We often step in and negotiate when a conflict is taking place, but conflict doesn’t have to exist for there to be an opportunity for negotiation. It can be a discussion of an exchange of goods and services (or just jockeying for position on a sidewalk).

All negotiations share four common characteristics:

  • The parties involved are somehow interdependent
  • The parties are each looking to achieve the best possible result in the interaction for themselves
  • The parties are motivated and capable of influencing one another
  • The parties believe they can reach an agreement

If these conditions don’t exist, neither can a negotiation. The parties have to be interdependent—whether they are experiencing a conflict at work or want to do business with one another. Each has an interest in achieving the best possible result. The parties are motivated and capable of influencing one another, like a union bargaining for better working conditions. A worker doesn’t have influence over a manufacturer, but a union of workers does, and without that influence as a factor, both parties won’t be motivated to come to the table for discussions. Finally, the parties need to believe they can reach an agreement; otherwise any negotiation talks will be futile.

Practice Question

There are two basic types of negotiation—distributive and integrative:

Distributive Negotiation

Distributive negotiation operates under zero-sum conditions. Anything one party gains in the deal is lost by the other party. There can be a winner and a loser, and parties are usually opposing each other. Any relationship between the two parties is usually short term, as at least one party will walk away a “loser” of sorts and animosities can build.

Buying a Used Car

Imagine you’re looking to purchase a used car. You might meet a salesperson on the lot. You ask the price of the green Chevy. The salesperson tells you, and you shake your head—you know you don’t want to pay that much. You make an offer that’s significantly cheaper than the current sales price. Negotiation begins.

The new price will likely come at the commission of the salesperson, as there’s a fixed amount of resources to be divided. As you “win” a discounted price, he “loses” commission. You and the salesperson are opposing each other in the price negotiation. And when the purchase is complete, you’ll part ways, not likely to interact again.

Integrated Negotiation

Integrated negotiation features a variable amount of resources to be divided. In integrated negotiations, both parties can walk away winners. Their primary interests don’t make them “opposing parties,” but rather they’re convergent or congruent with one another. In integrated negotiations, the relationship can be of longer term, because feelings are preserved and no one walks away a loser.

Residential Amusement Park

Let’s say a long-operating amusement park is now surrounded by residential housing. One fall, the park announces that they’re going to open a roller coaster on the side of the park that’s closest to the residential neighborhood, and they’re going to build a parking structure to accommodate the extra guests they’re sure the coaster will attract. Neighbors mount a protest—they don’t want noise and the extra traffic that the roller coaster will bring. They complain to the city, and meetings are called.

The amusement park realizes that having the trust of these area homeowners is important because their complaints are not only well-founded but can cause delays to the park’s plans. The park agrees to move the parking structure to the other side of the park, reposition speakers that might create too much noise for their neighbors and build a wall to keep the sound in the park and not out in the neighborhood. It’s a win-win for both sides—neighbors keep a neighborhood free from traffic and noise, and the amusement park can add its profit-building roller coaster. Additionally, if the park can keep the neighborhood on its side, people from the neighborhood are more likely to visit the park.


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