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Compromise or creative arrangement?

Interview with Michel Ghazal by Négociations magazine

"The very essence of compromise: a situation that satisfies no one, but gives everyone the impression of knowing that the others were just as badly off as they were. Trevanian in Shibumi


Revue Négociations : Let's say you had to write a "Compromise" entry in a possible Dictionary of Negotiation. How would you define this concept?
Michel Ghazal: Negotiation is a means of settling a dispute, concluding a business deal or making a decision. In all three cases, compromise can be one of the ways of reaching a solution. To achieve this, each party takes an extreme position, and following reciprocal concessions, a median position, intermediate between the two positions, is aimed for. We call this middle position, which the various parties agree to accept, a compromise. In essence, a compromise is a distributive solution that does not enlarge the "cake". The players' assumption is that the cake is limited once and for all. Every gain for one is a loss for the other. This mode is the legacy of a certain approach to negotiation, haggling, with its flagship image: the "carpet merchant" in a souk. It should be noted, however, that this approach is widely present in all types of negotiation, whether in the social, economic, private or even political worlds. This approach, based on reciprocal concessions, in which each party strives to do as little as possible while getting the other to do as much as possible, is referred to in politics as "small steps"; in social negotiations as "advances", and in the business world as "efforts", already made or still to be made... In literature and everyday life, there is also a negative sense of the word "compromise". It is often associated with compromising or compromising oneself. It is also referred to as a "compromised reputation"; or, as it is sometimes said, "the deal is compromised", meaning that it has failed.
Revue Négociations : The Fifty Percent Solution, as William Zartman wrote in the title of one of his first books: is it a satisfactory solution for both parties?
Michel Ghazal: If the stakes are low, sharing one euro for example, why not. It would be unproductive to spend hours looking for a more creative solution. In other situations, however, compromise may make no sense at all. If in a couple, one wants four children and the other only two, agreeing on three children is hardly a satisfactory solution, either for the husband or the wife... So, no, it's not a universal panacea. Remember that this is a legacy of the Judgement of Solomon, which is a perfect illustration of this.
Each of the two women claimed to be the child's mother, and King Solomon told them that all they had to do was cut the child in two. One of the two objected violently and the other said yes without hesitation. That was all it took for King Solomon to guess who the real mother was... Unfortunately, we have retained from this biblical episode the idea of the pear cut in two as a possible solution, whereas Solomon didn't actually cut anything! It was just a trick to reveal the identity of the real mother. So compromise, as the result of a particular way of seeking solutions - compared with other ways of generating them, called "integrative" - often results in a poor, non-optimised "distributive" agreement. And this is so because the interests and concerns behind the positions are not sought out, thereby obscuring openings that would have made it possible to reach richer and more satisfactory agreements for everyone.
Revue Négociations : Why is it that negotiators tend to go for fifty-fifty solutions, "pears cut in half"? Why do they stop along the way?
Michel Ghazal: Because it's the easiest and quickest! Making such compromises requires no special intelligence, if I may put it that way. It's within the reach of any street vendor, in any souk... It requires no reflection and limits the search for new solutions. Negotiation, however, if we go back to its Latin meaning, is neg otium, literally meaning to stop being idle, to be lazy; it is therefore to put oneself "to work"... Negotiation, unlike simple haggling, requires work. Compromise, in this sense, remains an easy solution, even if it can be understood by everyone. Let's take the example of a union delegate who tells his constituents that management's initial position was to increase wages by 1 %, that his position was to obtain 2 %, and that he obtained 1.5 %; or that it only wanted to give a bonus of 50 euros, that he was asking for 150 euros and that he compromised on an amount of 100 euros: Who's going to challenge him on what he presents as a victory and tell him that he didn't do his job properly - even though the real issue wasn't money but a safety problem? Focusing on money suits everyone, including management. In this sense, compromise is problematic: it allows us to move quickly, of course, but it often obscures people's real concerns and means that opportunities to create value are missed.
Revue Négociations : In practical terms, how do you take account of the interests and concerns of individuals? In your practice as a trainer and consultant, how do you present to your clients and trainees the need to make such efforts in terms of research and creativity, to build a solution other than the simple average of starting positions?
Michel Ghazal: How do we help our clients to reach "arrangements" - and that's the right word to use here - that are acceptable to everyone and optimised? The first thing, which is trivial but which unfortunately even experienced negotiators forget, is to understand that preparation for negotiation is a key element. As Henry Kissinger once said, you must "always be ready to negotiate, but never negotiate unprepared".
How do you prepare? We urge our trainees - and this comes as a great surprise to them here in France, and clashes with their practice - to ask themselves what they are going to do if negotiations fail, before they embark on them. To force them to think about what we call MESORE, the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. It is shocking for a professional negotiator to be advised to think beforehand about what to do if the negotiation fails. For our customers, this is a mental and cultural revolution that is very difficult to bring about. However, as soon as they understand the benefits of this reasoning, they adopt it without any problem. Why do they do this? Pragmatically, it reduces the emotional aspect that is omnipresent in any negotiation. This irrationality, as it is generally called, has its rational side... And this "rational" side is the interests behind the positions that individuals adopt, and which need to be listed exhaustively. This is our first piece of advice for moving towards an arrangement that outperforms the distributive compromise: think in advance about our other solutions if an agreement with the other proves impossible. This will bring some rationality to the negotiation, which may be fraught with conflict; strong emotion is likely, resulting in the reptilian brain taking control and blinding us to our true objective. Asking ourselves what we are going to do if we fail will give us a red line from which the proposals on the table will be accepted or rejected. This red line must be real and concrete; it is not fictitious or arbitrarily defined. This means that if I'm in the process of negotiating my salary at company X, and I already have a proposal from company Y, it will be easier for me to say yes or no to X depending on the pre-established threshold - plus or minus 5 or 10 % - below which I opt for company Y. The concrete MEASURE - in this case Y's offer - gives me a red line for accepting the proposal, or for making the negotiation fail with complete peace of mind. People then understand that negotiating is not necessarily about reaching an agreement at any price. Sometimes, a successful negotiation is actually a failed one! And why is that? Because any agreement on the table is worse than the alternative solution I have outside any agreement. If I want to buy a property, it's in my interest to have another one in mind; when I'm looking for a supplier, it's in my interest to have another supplier, and so on. If I want to take the other party to court and have little chance of winning, what do I do? Do I sue anyway, because my blindness encourages me to do so, or do I take a clear-sighted look at my chances? If I realise that they are slim, then I go for another solution. That's the key point, the most important point - and it often offends French negotiators.
Our second piece of advice, which follows on from the first - and which is what the most talented negotiators do, who find it easier to get out of situations that are reputed to be deadlocked - is to always understand why we want a particular thing. The question to ask is: "What are we looking for? not "What do we want? It's not: "What am I asking for?", but "What's behind my request, what's in it for me? My need? My motivation?" Or "What are my concerns, my expectations? All this is grouped together under the generic term "interests". What do I really want? An annual salary of a hundred thousand euros? Or do I want to be recognised, considered, have a certain lifestyle, etc.?
Our third piece of advice is this: in negotiation, you are not alone. There is another party, or several other parties. People often come into a negotiation thinking about their interests, their arguments and their positions, and they forget that there is another party! So we're going to encourage our customers and trainees to put themselves in the other party's shoes. What are the reasons for this? First of all, it will show the other person that I take them into account, that the relational aspect is important to me. Let's not forget that most negotiations are part of an ongoing relationship, so compromise in the bad sense of the word - that "pear cut in two" - is even worse! In compromise, you try to extract concessions; the other party will be resentful. If I'm looking for mutually beneficial solutions, then I can show that my aim is not only to take into account the interests of the other party, but also to preserve my relationship with them. By doing this work, for yourself and for the other party, you will discover something fundamental that will enable you to move towards a mutually acceptable arrangement and solution. And that is? That the classic assumption that our interests are contradictory, opposed or divergent is wrong. On the contrary, we will discover that in this negotiation, as in any other, there are common interests and shared concerns. These interests and concerns will then be major levers for encouraging each other to seek solutions; they will instil in us the energy to fight, side by side, to find an acceptable solution and resolve our problem. And every time the negotiation process reaches an impasse - and we can't prevent that! And each time the negotiation process reaches an impasse - and we can't prevent that! - each time the other party becomes entrenched in his or her position, we can remind them of our common interests, and thus relaunch the creative process of negotiation.
Another piece of advice: come to the negotiating table with a learning attitude. In other words, with a willingness to learn from others, and not just a willingness to convince them! This shift, this transformation, is not easy to make, but it is fundamental. There are two essential qualities in a negotiator that are needed to bring about this mental change. The first is the ability to listen. Arriving at a negotiation with a willingness to learn requires this first, fundamental quality, which is listening. The second quality is flexibility, to take into account the hidden side of the other person. This will enrich my overall vision of the negotiation process. So I'm going to have to be flexible and adaptable in order to integrate the other person's concerns into the construction of the solution we have to invent together. Hence my definition, not of compromise, as I said earlier, but this time of negotiation. It is a means of inventing a new solution, in a situation where there are both common and divergent interests, with the aim of reaching an agreement whose cost is lower than that of remaining in the conflict. In other words, the gain
must be greater than my MESORE - i.e. the absence of any agreement. In fact, I only conclude an agreement if it is better than my off-table solution; otherwise, I cause the negotiation to fail. That's why we say that sometimes successful negotiation means failure...
Revue Négociations : Let's switch gears and look at the cultural differences in the way we perceive negotiation. You are of Middle Eastern origin. Can you identify any differences between the Western and Middle Eastern approaches to negotiated compromise?
Michel Ghazal: To answer your question, I'd like to go back to my Lebanese origins, which are Middle Eastern, even though I've lived in France for many years. In fact, I've attempted a sort of synthesis between this tradition and the Western tradition... When we talk about compromise in the form of a "pear cut in two", this is obviously a legacy of haggling, which traditionally took place in the souks. But it's not just in the souks that it's practised! Even in some international negotiations, this is unfortunately what happens! So we end up with some pretty mediocre solutions... Take also the various social reforms attempted by successive governments, such as the recent one on pensions. Many concessions have often rendered them meaningless; the agreement reached by the various parties only partially takes into account their fundamental interests. There's not much difference between a compromise, in the bad sense of the word, and what we ended up with on pensions, for example... This type of compromise exists everywhere because, as I said, it's much simpler to proceed that way. In France, there is no real culture of negotiation; it's quite recent to consider that this is an art, or a way of doing things that needs to be learned, like mathematics or Latin...
Revue Négociations : How do you explain the lack of a negotiating culture in France, "a country that doesn't like to negotiate", as Jean-Paul Jacquier put it in a book published ten years ago?
Michel Ghazal: Let's re-read Philippe d'Iribarne's book, La Logique de l'honneur. In it, he shows that the culture of the Netherlands is one of consensus-building, with individuals seeking to take account of the interests of others. In France, it's quite different: it's a monarchical culture, where everything comes from above and is imposed on those below, who must comply; and being forced to negotiate is seen as a surrender of power and a step backwards...
Revue Négociations: But isn't this also the case in many Middle Eastern countries?
Michel Ghazal: Not quite. Historically, these countries have a very strong negotiating culture. Over there, if you don't know how to negotiate, you don't stand much of a chance... Except that they persist in a negotiating style which, in terms of solutions, is more geared towards "splitting pears in two". But in terms of general negotiating culture, this tradition is centuries old, going back to my ancestors the Phoenicians...
Revue Négociations : Doesn't this Middle Eastern civilisation have a vision, a perception of the world, that inclines the individuals who make up these peoples to practise this culture of negotiation on a daily basis, which is not the case, it would seem, in the Western tradition?
Michel Ghazal: We also provide negotiation training for people in the Middle East. The big difference between them and us is that they place great emphasis on relationships. Let me give you a personal example. I was recently visiting Byblos, now called Jbeil, a medieval coastal town in Lebanon, with some friends. In the middle of the ruins, an enclosure was filled with obelisks; our guide informed us that they were there to better welcome the Egyptian traders arriving by sea after several days' sailing on the Mediterranean. After the relief of arriving safely at port, the Phoenicians would let them pray to their deities rather than immediately start trading with them. In this way, the temples erected at the entrance to the city would allow these traders to regain their inner peace and, after this rest, be better able to negotiate. This is in stark contrast to certain classic Western approaches to negotiation, where it is recommended to make the other party feel uncomfortable in order to extract concessions... The Middle Easterners intuitively understood that the best way to negotiate was to make their partner feel at ease. Why was this? Because if the other person is at ease, the less they will be locked in; and the less they will be afraid to reveal themselves, the greater the opportunity to find creative solutions. When we train people in the Middle East, we recognise their ability to cultivate relationships through negotiation. Here in France, we don't talk much, we pass each other in the street without looking at each other, and we have absolutely no desire to talk at the start of a negotiation; we want to get straight to the point. We live in a society of productivity, where time has a high value. In the Middle East, we know that you have to waste time to gain time. But once you've created a good climate of relations, things move more quickly. So Middle Easterners have a great deal of intuitive strength when it comes to maintaining good relationships. What they lack - and this is what we teach them! -is rigour and a methodical approach to the process. When you combine their intuitive sense of relationship with the systematic tools we teach them, they really do become outstanding negotiators...
Revue Négociations : Do you see any other differences between the Western and Middle Eastern approaches to compromise and negotiation?
Michel Ghazal: Yes, the image we have of the Lebanese or the Syrians is that they are skilful. This can be negative when negotiators from these two cultures and a Westerner meet. The latter may be afraid of being "taken advantage of", and this can lead to closure... These are some of the differences that I see between their negotiation methods and ours. Middle Easterners don't spend time thinking about what they're going to do if they fail, or putting themselves in the other person's shoes, and so on. On the other hand, they will be welcoming, they will know how to talk about something other than the subject under negotiation, thus creating a more convivial climate. There was an experiment in the United States, which has since been repeated several times - and the results are as spectacular as ever, confirming what I've just said: one group of students was asked to start their negotiations by talking for a few minutes about other things, the arrival of spring, football, rugby or tennis results, in short, whatever they wanted; another group was asked to start their negotiations immediately, without this prior exchange. The authors of the experiment showed that the first group was four times more likely to reach a satisfactory agreement! Intuitively, Middle Eastern negotiators practise this...
Revue Négociations : A few years ago, an Egyptian sociologist, Tarek Heggy, stated in an article that continues to circulate on the Internet 3 that there was no Arabic equivalent for the word "compromise", and that its only translation could only be "intermediate solution". This has the disadvantage, in his view, of not reflecting the very essence of a compromise, i.e. its pragmatism. He also noted that Arab popular sayings gave a bad image of the notion of compromise, whereas "hundreds of popular sayings in Great Britain do exactly the opposite". "In our part of the world," he continued, "many people, even educated ones, associate the word 'compromise' with other negative terms such as 'submission', 'retreat', 'capitulation', 'weakness' and 'defeat'. What do you think of Tarek Heggy's assertion?
Michel Ghazal: I would first like to come back to one point. In his article, Tarek Heggy is slightly mistaken when he says that the Arabic translation of the Western word for "compromise" is simply "intermediate solution". The dictionary does indeed say "hall waçat", which means "intermediate solution". But there is another translation of "compromise": it's "tassouiya", and "tassouiya" means "arrangement", very precisely! I often can't find a good translation of the words used in negotiation, but this time there is one, and it ties in with my own definition of compromise as a creative arrangement...
I'll now answer your question. As I said earlier, the same feeling of capitulation prevails in France. We live in a society steeped in a monarchical culture where decision-making is unilateral and top-down. Yet today, in our modern societies, everyone wants to be taken into account in their differences; everyone wants to be recognised and interdependence is the rule. These are the fundamental conditions for situations where negotiation is the appropriate response. In France, however, negotiation is often seen as a weakness, because our "princes" see taking into account the needs of others as an attack on their discretionary power, and therefore as a surrender. So it is by teaching these leaders that there are other ways of making decisions, more collectively but where no one capitulates, that they can be led to look at negotiation from a different angle: a joint search for a mutually beneficial solution.
Interview by Christian Thuderoz. Sept. 2011.


  1. Founder of the European Negotiation Centre: 77, avenue des Champs Elysées - 75008 Paris. Tel: +33 (0) Email: michel.ghazal@cenego.com
  2. See the article by Leo Goovaerts in this issue.
  3. Tarek Heggy, "The Need for a 'Culture of Compromise'", Al-Ahram, Cairo, 14 September 2002.

See also

the European Negotiation Centre, quoted in Le Point.

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