Breaking Away From Subtle Biases
By J. William Breslin
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
J. William Breslin, "Breaking Away from Subtle Biases," in Negotiation Theory and Practice, eds. J. William Breslin and Jeffery Z. Rubin, (Cambridge: The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, 1991), pp. 247-250
Negotiators must be concerned with both the prejudices they may have about others, and with the prejudices other may have about them. Some types of prejudice are relatively obvious. A history of hostile relations generally creates fairly clear "us versus them" prejudices. For example, American-Iranian negotiations will be colored by past hostilities between those nations. Since these prejudices are fairly overt, they are easier to identify and deal with.
Breslin points out that there are more subtle forms of bias, such as those based on people's gender, national origin or occupation. For instance, Asians are expected to be shrewd and reserved, Americans arrogant and materialistic, Central Americans disorganized and impractical. Such biases are more difficult to recognize, yet are a fact of life. These biases can affect how negotiators see others. They can also affect how negotiators see themselves, and so lead to self-defeating expectations. Negotiators may expect to be the object of others' prejudices, and so may expect to be ignored or dismissed.
Breslin suggests several ways of combating these subtle biases. The basic tactic is to focus on the particular individual, rather than on their ethnic or national background. Remember that there are often greater differ differences within a group than between groups. Productive interactions between different groups can also counteract stereotypes. Recognizing that you yourself might hold or be the victim of biases is the first and most crucial step in combating prejudice. Breslin cautions that subtle biases "are particularly deadly because they predispose a negotiator to view people as the problem, not as colleagues who work together to resolve a problem."[p. 249]