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The Junior High School Dance in the Gym

February 8, 2015

You remember those Junior High School Dances in the Gym. I certainly do. They are among those rites of passage in which we all had to take part.

It’s Friday afternoon. The girls are lined up against one wall in the gym, the boys against the other. Everyone is looking. Everyone wants to dance. The girls stand in a gaggle and giggle. The boys lean against the wall with their hands in their pockets trying to look cool.

No one is on the dance floor, and no boy and no girl wants to go first.

Finally someone has the chutzpah, the nerve, to venture into the void – while everyone is watching – to walk up to another equally scared student and ask.

Everyone holds his or her breath.

She says “yes” in a small voice and the dance starts.  Others join them on the dance floor.

OK, so they are not dancing so closely together.

It’s a slow dance and they hold each other but one could fit a yardstick between them.

All the others who have joined them are situated similarly.

You get the picture.

Sometimes I see a similar ritual in mediation.

Both sides want “to dance” but neither side wants to go first.

Often I hear: “I want the other side to go first so I can see what they want to do” or “I’d like to hear their demand/offer first” or “I want them to make the first offer.”

I usually have to coax one side or the other to start.  Otherwise we will not have a negotiation.

I know intuitively that the one who starts often does better in the negotiation than the other.

This is so, as I see it, because the starter “anchors” the discussion in the range that he or she would like to target, and the other must then react to it.

But the negotiators don’t get it.  I coax and finally someone makes the first move.

One side finally makes an aggressive offer. The other side objects. “It’s too high” or “It’s too low.”  Yet the negotiation begins.

Rarely, the objector has no response except to get up and leave.

But that is not too often. Instead, a counteroffer is made and we are on our way.

Finally, there’s just a yardstick’s difference between them, they come closer together, and a settlement is reached.

In retrospect, the starter sometimes realizes that he/she did better in the negotiation having gone first, as I suspected he/she would.

I attended a session of a “Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Colloquium” this past week at the UCLA Law School which confirmed my intuition that the starter often does better … with some qualifications/exceptions.

The discussion was led by Professor Adam Galinsky of the Columbia Business School, and the presentation was terrific.

Afterwards, I met up with a lawyer I know who attended the lecture. Like others, she thought that she should never make the first offer and now she is rethinking her strategy.

That might not be a bad idea.

***

David I. Karp is a full time independent mediator of real estate and business disputes in Southern California. For further information, please go to his website at http://karpmediation.com .

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