The power of peaceful negotiation

Negotiation is an important part of civil proceedings. Even before you start those proceedings, you must have taken reasonable steps and reached out to the other party without the involvement of a court. When you’re trying to resolve a conflict, slinging mud at the other party and voicing anger are rarely useful, but when you feel wronged, remaining reasonable can be hard.

Negotiation is a skill that most Britons lack, at all levels in society. Even British Prime Ministers regularly behave as senseless raging bulls or adolescent bullies when it comes to negotiating internationally. It makes them look like utter fools. It works only when they are dealing with the likes of George W. Bush, who was not exactly known for his finesse, intelligence and diplomatic skills either.

yay!In 1985, a stranger broke into my home overnight and raped me in my own bed. When he was done, he reached around for something to tie me up with. One thing he grabbed and tugged at was the cable of a lamp. Oh no, I thought, if this guy ties me up, it may take weeks before anyone discovers me! I had just started my Master’s and was living in a high-rise filled with student flats. One of my neighbours was deaf, and the other one didn’t give a toss and was rarely home anyway.

So I negotiated.

I quickly spun a story of how I was in bad mental shape, already seeing a shrink (nope) and how tying me up would be very damaging to me psychologically, that I wouldn’t be able to handle it, that it would break me.

You know what? He listened. He took one of my pullovers and tied that around my head, and not too tightly, so that I wouldn’t be able to see him or wack him on the head with something and knock him out instantly as soon as he’d turned his back. When he was gone, I took the pullover from my head, and dialed the numbers of a friend and of the police. (Of course, I would never have called police if this had happened in the UK.) A women’s self-defence course was part of how I chose to deal with the matter. I also did a great deal of reading, talking, writng and some painting.

Later, I had a downstairs neighbour who blasted me out of bed many nights with loud music. Oh no, I thought every time while the bass shook my bed till 4 or 5 because I had to be in class at 9 in the morning.

One day when I was well-rested, I knocked on his door.

I asked him if he was ever bothered by noise coming from my place. It is usually very hard to tell whether someone in an adjacent home can hear what goes on in your own home or not. No, he said, and then he asked if he himself was ever loud. So I told him. Indeed, he had not been aware of the effect of his music at all.

He paid attention to it for a while and then slowly, the noise built up again. He was on mental disability benefits so he was home all day and all night, didn’t have a place where he needed to be at 9 the following morning. So I bought him headphones. I knocked on his door again, and gave him the headphones. Problem solved.

When I was walking back from the Winn-Dixie supermarket in central Saint Petersburg one day when I was living in Florida, there was a sudden pull and tug and gone was my shoulder bag. Oh no, I thought, my passport is in that bag, and my bank cards, and my driving licence! As a foreigner, I had to carry ID with me at all times.

I negotiated.

a sense of elationFirst I put my shopping bags down, then picked them up again. No way I was going to lose my groceries too. I walked after the thief and kept calling out to him. “I am a foreigner and my passport and driving licence are in that bag. I need those. Please let me keep my passport and my driving licence.” I didn’t give up.

You know what? He listened. He stopped and told me to stay back. He went through my bag and my purse, took the money – peanuts – and dropped the bag with the rest still in it on the ground. Then he took off. I picked up my bag and got to keep everything that mattered to me. It made my day! I was elated!

People asked me what I would have done if he had pulled a gun on me. I had no idea. Duck behind a car? The thought had never crossed my mind. I focused on what was important to me, and went for it, by negotiating.

I do this without thinking. If you believe in astrology, you might say that my zodiac sign explains it. You know what I think? It comes from having had a partly crappy childhood, and also from being Dutch.

When I was a young child, my parents often fought on Sunday. I hated it. I hate senseless fights. I would often buy pastries (“gebakjes”) after church or the day before and hide them in my dad’s walk-in cooler room where he stored his dairy products. I would wait until the fight seemed to be reaching an impasse, and then I’d shuffle to the back of the building where the cooler was, and timidly shuffle back with my pastries, hoping fervently that they would create a breakthrough distraction and end the fight.

When I was a teenager after my mother had passed away, my dad would often go berserk, as if he had a sudden short circuit in his brain. He would for instance threaten to crash the car with my siblings and me in it, and floor the pedal. For some reason, this often happened while we were on a twisty German Autobahn with plenty of bends to lose control in. Let me tell you that that is bloody scary when you’re a youngster and don’t know how to drive a car. No degree of phantasizing about grabbing the wheel gets you out of such a situation.

So I’d negotiate.

I’d talk to my dad like crazy, trying to find the words that would pull him out of his craze and make him slow down the car again. I always succeeded, otherwise I would not have been typing these words here today. I guess that’s how I learned to negotiate. I don’t think in those moments. I act.

(Okay, except that time when my dad tried to set fire to me. Then I froze because there are limits to what a human being can handle. That’s when my two younger sisters acted for me.)

reaching outReal-life situations without an immediate urgency are often very different. Then, it can really help to think. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and focus on a compromise that benefits all sides.

It’s amazing how two parties can be equally convinced that they’ve been wronged and that they’re in the right until they start looking at the situation from other angles and gain some distance.