Summary of "Challenging the Assumptions of Traditional Approaches to Negotiation"

Summary of

Challenging the Assumptions of Traditional Approaches to Negotiation

By Linda L. Putnam

This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff 

"Challenging the Assumptions of Traditional Approaches to Negotiation," Linda L. Putnam, Negotiation Journal, 10:4 (October 1994), pp. 337-345.

Putnam questions three basic assumptions of negotiation theory. She argues that current models ignore critical aspects of conflict management. Since any theory necessarily highlight some elements at the expense of others, our understanding of negotiation could be improved by developing a variety of alternative theories.

One common assumption is that negotiation is a tool, an instrument, used to achieve some substantive end. Negotiation features and processes are described and evaluated in terms of their connection to some desired outcome, and outcomes are though of as distinct from processes. This assumption emphasizes substantive issues (interests and outcomes) and obscures relationship or identity issues. Relationships, for example, may be redescribed in instrumental terms. Rather than view negotiation as a kind of relationship, relationships are seen as elements in the negotiation process that can either facilitate or hinder outcomes. When negotiation s thought of as a problem-solving tool, relationships may be redescribed in terms of problems and outcomes. A bad relationship is seen as a problem, an improved relationship as the desired outcome.

An alternative to the instrumental view is the transformative view; negotiation is the process of producing fundamental change in a dispute. The change may be in the way the parties understand themselves, their conflict, their relationship, or their situation. Change can occur at the level of issues, actors, rules, structure or context. A transformative approach to negotiation emphasizes the role deliberative processes as processes of learning and understanding. Researchers working outside of the area of negotiation theory argue that the transformative approach addresses one of the main objectives of conflicts generally, and that many intractable conflicts can only be resolved by transformative processes. Putnam also notes that a transformative approach, "treats instrumental ends and bargaining outcomes as part of the totality of negotiation rather than as the ultimate aim of the process."(p. 341)

Another common assumption is that individuals are the driving force in negotiations. Models emphasize individual agency, autonomy, and self-interest. They focus on how individuals make strategic choices, handle relationships, manage face, and wield power. Even concern for others is explained as a matter of enlightened self-interest. "Individual agency is a value that is esteemed in Western culture. It stems from a belief that society is made of distinct and radically separate human beings who act independently and are accountable for their own choices."(p. 341)

There are a growing number of alternatives to this model. Other approaches focus on relations between people and groups as the driving force in negotiation. For example, rather than being something an individual makes, choices are seen as the joint product of human interaction. Changing relationships is the primary objective of negotiation, and relationships are seen as valuable in their own right. Relational models give a much fuller account of negotiations in established relationships or friendships than individualistic, self interest-based models can.

Finally, "traditional negotiation models have exalted rationality to a privileged status."(p. 342) Rationality is individual calculation; it is conceived of as strategic planning, objective assessment, and purposeful action. Here again, rationality is presented as a tool for pursuing one's previously given ends. The overemphasis on rationality obscures the role of emotion. When they are considered, emotions are either seen as being disruptive of reason (anger), or are treated as tactics for reaching a settlement (positive feelings make the opponent more agreeable).

The dialogic view offers an alternative. It sees negotiation as a process of building mutual understanding. Feelings are recognized as important sources of knowledge. "Narrative tales told by a group of exemplary mediators indicate that intuition and sensing are critical components of negotiation, ones tied closely to feelings."(p. 344) The dialogic view accommodates these varied modes of perception and learning.

As traditional negotiation theory becomes more fully developed, it is important for "arm chair theorists" to question its basic assumptions, to search for areas that traditional approaches omit or mis-describe, and to speculate on new and provocative alternatives.