When the equality rule fails: The case of four shells

If I’ve learned one thing as a negotiation professor, it’s that the fairest and most obvious ways of dividing resources often seem unfair and non-obvious to the parties involved. Consider the equality rule. What could be fairer than a 50-50 split? Unfortunately, the parties embroiled in a negotiation don’t always see it that way. So we need an alternative approach to make life negotiable.

To illustrate the dilemma and a set of potential solutions, let me recount a story.

My family and I recently visited the beach. One morning, I took a long run and decided to pick up some cool shells for my five- and three-year-old daughters. At first, I found three shells, thinking that more than sufficient. But then I remembered that three shells allocated to two young ladies would elicit open warfare. So I searched high and low for a fourth, finding an amazing orange one that I expected to settle the matter. Two shells for each daughter. Equality rule!

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. And I should’ve seen it coming: Both daughters regarded the orange shell as way cooler than the others, so both daughters clamored for it.

The equality rule, so obvious in theory, completely failed in practice. And what to do then? I have to admit, I didn’t immediately know, as I was shell-shocked at this incomprehensible failure of the obvious. With reflection though, I came to see that the situation actually presented many different solutions:

  • Flip a coin: I could flip to determine the lucky recipient of the orange shell, give that daughter one more, and give the other daughter the remaining two. Problem is, someone would be incredibly dissatisfied with the fickle hand of fate.
  • Share the orange shell: If the equality rule didn’t work, maybe a quasi-communist rule would. We could all agree to share the orange shell, which is great but would bring all the baggage of common property, even while leaving three shells to divide among two people.
  • Search for another orange shell: Perhaps the ideal option, this one came with an obvious problem: I’ve never seen a shell quite like that. That’s why everyone liked it. So it wasn’t going to work.
  • Return the orange shell to its marine home and find a fourth: While this would’ve technically solved the problem, any parent can tell you that it would’ve elicited far bigger problems.
  • Let the daughters sort it out: They need to learn that life’s negotiable after all, so why not let them figure out a solution of their own? I have to admit that I considered this option carefully, but I thought it might be better to guide them toward a solution.
  • Three-for-one trade: I could give one daughter the orange shell and the other daughter all three of the more pedestrian shells. That seemed promising, but they flatly rejected it. Three pedestrian shells apparently did not compare to a glorious orange one.
  • Figure it out later: Having ruled out all the other obvious solutions, I could think of only one more at the time. Why not wait until the initial allure of the orange shell had worn off a bit? Then maybe everyone’s rationality would return, making the sort-it-out or three-for-one solutions more feasible. And that’s essentially what I did, hoping for a three-for-one. Turns out, the problem got a whole lot easier when someone mentioned the candy store, and everyone forgot the shells.

So what’s the point of all this? First, that even the simplest and least controversial of situations can generate unexpected conflicts and the need for negotiation. Second, that the equality rule can easily fall flat, and we have to be flexible enough to abandon it. Finally, that the key to any negotiation really comes down a combination of creativity and patience. Once the negotiator engages their creativity and indulges their patience long enough to generate some options, a workable solution usually presents itself. Combine a little creativity and patience, and life’s a beach!

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