• Philip Reich

Sending a Message


Do you remember that old game that we used to play called "telephone"? The person at the end of the line whispers a message to the person next to them, who whispers it to the next, who whispers it to the next, and so on, until the other end of the line. The last person to hear the message then says what they think the message was. Rarely does it match the message that started the game. This "phenomenon" often occurs in mediations, where the messaging is not direct, consistent, or clear.


Though we, an advanced species, have developed very sophisticated means of communicating, including extensive written and verbal language, we are often very poor communicators. Negotiations are a time when our communications skills should be in a honed state of excellence. Yet, they are not. Many negotiators believe that they should somehow obfuscate their true intentions, their real needs and desires, and their honest goals. And as mediators, we find ourselves helping in the process. In fact, we are often put into the position of furthering or at least repeating the miscommunications in an exhibit of mock shuttle diplomacy between the multiple caucus rooms.


Negotiating parties often attempt to send messages with their offers and counteroffers. “We’ll respond to their offer with $50,000. I want to send them a message.” That’s it? What’s the message? The fact that the participants in the negotiation know what preceded that offer does not mean that the message is any more clear than it is to you hearing it out of context. Yet, many mediators will dutifully carry that "message" right back to the other side with nothing more.


If you want to send the other side a message, why not use something more effective than numbers? Numbers were not designed to communicate messages. They were designed to measure things precisely, solve mathematical problems, and communicate hard and fast facts. They are not very effective at communicating ideas, emotions, feelings, inclinations, motivations, or needs.


How about this? Why not communicate a principled offer (or counteroffer) based on something, anything, and accompany it with whatever it is that you want to communicate, in words? “We will counter their offer with an offer of $50,000, which is 5 times their out-of-pocket expenses, and we’re willing to continue to negotiate from there but we don’t have much room to move based upon the information that we have provided and our assessment of the case.” Or something like, “We will a substantial move to $60,000 even though their last move was not significant enough given how we value the case. But our future moves will have to be smaller if they continue to make small moves.”


As a mediator, I work with the negotiating parties to ensure that their messages are clear, concise, and effective. This means actively listening to the parties, offering suggestions, honestly evaluating potential positions, and being proactive without taking control of the negotiations. It's your negotiation. I simply want to help.