Thursday 20 January 2022

Cat or No Cat?

I had introduced the group to the Harvard model of negotiating (as outlined in Getting to Yes) and they had discussed some of their negotiations in small groups. In the discussion following, one woman said: My issue is about a cat. My husband wants one, and I don't. There's really not much room for negotiating.

I mentioned that in the Harvard model, rather than focusing on the positions (I want a cat! versus I don't!) we would look at the underlying interests. What was it that her husband wanted from having a cat?  What was it about having a cat that was so objectionable to her?

But, of course, they had done that work in the group, in the hope of inventing a new option that both would be happy with: and various other pet options had been suggested, ranging from squirrels to rabbits (and including, of course Schrödinger's cat...), and indeed occasional cat-sitting for a neighbour; but none of these possible solutions were suitable. So it really did look like a zero sum game. 

But I continued to think about this conundrum afterwards, and realised with hindsight that I had missed a valuable teaching moment. For another aspect of the Harvard model is to insist on objective criteria.  The intention here is to remove coercion from the discussion, so that neither party bullies, or feels bullied by, the other; and in a matrimonial relationship that strikes me as particularly important.

Clearly, when deciding whether or not to have a cat as a pet, objective criteria are hard to find. But the second-level aspect of this insight is fair process - and that is something I could have explored with my group. 

When teaching this in a longer context (eg a day's workshop on negotiating) I often talk about voting and democracy. I make the point that we don't vote because we believe the majority is always right (we have plenty of evidence from history that such is not the case) but rather because it stops us from killing each other. It removes coercion from the system, by offering a transparently fair process (at least, in theory - I don't want to get into a discussion of the current aberrations of democracy in this post...).

Clearly, in a matrimonial disagreement, voting doesn't apply, as you will get a 1:1 hung vote. But the principle could be applied. For example, both parties could agree to toss a coin, and be bound by the result. And if that feels too much like setting up one person to win, and the other to lose, one could add a further element to the agreement: that whoever gets their wish on this issue, must agree in advance to cede the right to decide the next contested decision to the other person. That would be interesting...

I wish I'd thought to raise this and explore it with the group the other day: I am sure that they would have had some interesting insights. Instead, I'll email them a link to this blog post, and pick it up with them next time we meet. 


With thanks to  Alvan NeeElliott Stallion and  André François McKenzie for sharing their photos on Unsplash

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