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What Ever Happened to Bargaining?

When I was in graduate school a very long time ago–I took a number of courses in bargaining theory. Later on, I had the privilege of co-authoring a book with Edward Lawler on, essentially what we was known as, “Bargaining Theory.”

In those days, ‘bargaining’ was the operative word and the word ‘negotiate’ didn’t play a prominent role in academic literature.

It seems ever since Fisher and Ury wrote “Getting to Yes” the word ‘bargaining’, or at least the noting of bargaining, has disappeared–out-casted and thrown under the shadow of the everybody-wins concept of “negotiation.”

The distinction between bargaining and negotiation is more than a character distinction–instead a subtle, even nuanced, strategic mindset lies between the two approaches.

The Difference Between Negotiation & Bargaining:

When I stand in front of a group of American students the notion of bargaining is uncomfortable. Bring up ‘bargaining’ and they look at me like I’m coming from some ethnic part of the universe where bazaars dominate, haggling is prominent, and power is essential. Bargaining, in their eyes, looks like a back alley dance–performed exclusively by shifty-eyed types.

On the other hand, when I discuss some of the concepts endemic to negotiation in foreign classrooms–I am met with equal confusion and the same awkward seat shifting. It’s as if I’m from a naive, New England-esque, alien planet called ‘Win-Win.’ Concepts, crucial to negotiations, like problem solving cooperatives and non-confrontational games are very peculiar to someone used to the idea of bargaining.

Bargaining carries, at least implicitly, a notion of power and tactical manipulation. Negotiation, on the other hand, seems to imply problem solving, little manipulation, and the idea of cooperation. In other words, bargaining is displayed as a lose-lose situation, whereas negotiation implies a win-win situation.

I think that our search for civility, the desire to approach every problem with the idea of a attaining a happy resolution, makes us forget the importance of bargaining. Some problems demand street-wise bargaining skills. Not everyone comes to the table with the epistemology of negotiations. Sometimes, people come to the table like they are shopping in a bazaar.

My father used shop on Essex Street and we used to be confronted by the aging  ‘pullers-in’ who would throw us into their store. My father lived in the world where you bargained over everything, from shirts to appliances. There was never a sense he was trying to negotiate for a common solution. He bargained to win. In the process he was civilized, accepted the shopkeeper’s position, and even tried to make sure that there was an element of fairness for everyone. But to call what he did a ‘negotiation’  is to miss a nuanced cultural difference. My father haggled, he bargained, and he took great pride in it.

I think that today bargaining is still alive and well as a concept, an ideology, and as a mindset. As we try to deal more and more with cross cultural issues we shouldn’t assume that our concept of civility, our notion of getting things done, our idea of ‘win-win’, will translate itself into every context. Some people still bargain or refer to what they do as bargaining and we should show political as well as cultural sensitivity to this mindset.

What do you think? Is bargaining a better tactic when you’re trying to push your agenda?

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