By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group
We’re sure it’s no surprise that compromise can be beneficial. What you may not know is how beneficial. For instance, why is it that concessions made by a developer are so effective in increasing the probability that a project is approved, especially in an environment where almost 80% of Americans say they don’t want anything new built in their community?
There are several factors at play. First, as we continually advocate, a mutual gains approach is a respectful and productive negotiation strategy. After all, being willing to make sacrifices and finding common ground fosters cooperation and engenders trust between the parties. Moreover, this approach ultimately results in a win for each side.
But behavioral science research suggests other reasons why this method might be so effective. One is the contrast principle, which states that when two fairly different items are presented in sequence, we will tend to see the second item as more different than it actually is. As Robert Cialdini writes in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, this is why if you’re considering buying several items of clothing, sales associates will always present you with the most expensive items first so that the subsequent items seem less expensive. It’s also why some realtors will show prospective buyers run-down properties at inflated prices first so that the comparison properties that they want to sell look more attractive.
So when developers first present their plans, any reductions in scale or scope of their proposals made in the course of negotiating with the community will make their plans seem like having less of an impact than if the resulting plans were presented alone.
Another potential reason for the effectiveness of compromise relates to the powerful rule of reciprocation. This rule simply states that we should try to repay whatever another has provided us in some way. In citing an experiment by Professor Dennis Regan of Cornell University, Cialdini says this is why you would likely buy raffle tickets from someone who had earlier done you a favor, even though it was unsolicited. You might even reciprocate at a higher rate of return in relation to the value of the favor provided.
Therefore, after a developer has made a concession, some people who formerly opposed the project might feel obligated to reciprocate by now supporting it.
Further, there’s another aspect to the reciprocity rule which Cialdini calls the rejection-then-retreat technique. This technique involves someone making an initial request, which he or she knows will likely be rejected, so that the appearance of a concession can be made through a second request.
This is an extremely effective technique because it also engages the contrast principle. That is, whatever request is made as an alternative will be seen as smaller than it actually is compared to the initial request. According to Cialdini, this is why you might be more willing to make a purchase from a solicitor after refusing an initially larger request. And this is why labor negotiators will often begin with extreme demands. By offering concessions of their own, they can elicit concessions from others in the process. Although, research has shown that any initial unreasonable requests can backfire and will not be reciprocated.
However, we always recommend that our clients negotiate in good faith. Our purpose here is to simply shed light on why these strategies and tactics work.
Given these additional benefits, compromise is not only good policy, it’s influential policy as well.
Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communication and the performing arts. Email Eagan@tscg.biz