No one expects you to be perfect. But, they do expect you to be fair. Fairness taps into our most basic need for justice. The concept is so fundamental to human dignity that it’s a core value recognized by cultures around the world. It even transcends social strata.
In a negotiation workshop I used to teach, “What’s fair?” was one of my favorite questions. We’d explore the concept by negotiating the settlement of a family estate, the type of event that often leads to bitter disputes.
In the case study, the adult siblings each inherited an equal share of the estate. Selling the bulk of it would generate cash that was easily divided; but there were five items the heirs didn’t want to sell: the family vacation cottage, an oil painting, an heirloom silver dinner service, some antique furniture, and the contents of the family library that included some rare books. That’s where the conflict lay. Each sibling had a favorite and the same item was often coveted by more than one person. What’s fair?
As for valuations, each item had multiple values, the fair market value and the sentimental value. There was no easy formula for determining an equitable distribution. The workshop participants were then divided into teams, assigned family roles, and asked to negotiate a fair deal.
What was remarkable about the exercise from my perspective is how unique each team’s solution was given the small set of facts. Sure, there were similarities. But, they were never identical.
That made me realize that no matter how simple or straightforward the facts may appear, a fresh set of eyes will inevitably see them differently. Everyone has their own set of experiences and frame of reference. There is no single “right” answer to what’s fair.
One team, for example, had a particularly creative solution to the vacation cottage. They combined individual ownership with vacation timeshare rights to give the rest of the family an opportunity to create vacation memories with their own children. With respect to the diner service, another team gave one sibling “custody” with the understanding that others could borrow it for special occasions and when hosting the family during holidays. It assured the heirloom pieces would continue to play a continuing role in family traditions. Each team felt it had reached a fair settlement even though the settlements were all markedly different.
Focusing on the underlying interests created workable solutions and mutual satisfaction. A spreadsheet approach would not have been able to identify or capture the intangible interests that ultimately made these deals happen. It shows how the art of listening could provide information about hidden concerns that could be translated into deal sweeteners and deal closers.
Consider the art of listening as a way to bridge positions between the parties the next time you find yourself embroiled in a business conflict. It can open the door to a new a fair solution.