How to Find Fairness In A Negotiation

unfair calvin.jpgThe old saying – “the first step to solving a problem is being aware that the problem exists.” On that same token, the first step to finding fairness in a negotiation is understanding that the other side’s view of fairness doesn’t even remotely resemble yours, their view of what is fair will probably seem crazy and illogical to you. Being aware of this notion is the first step to finding fairness in any interaction. The place you start when identifying what's “fair” is not the same as where you will end up. What you need to identify or draw attention to, is how you adjust perception anchors. First being aware and ready for the fact that the other side is not like you and does not share your perspective will help you wrap your mind around what it takes to articulate that viewpoint.

Changing someone’s perception anchor starts with the use of emotional intelligence and empathy as we define it in Never Spilt the Difference. Researchers are finding more and more correlations between tremendous amounts of success and EQ. For example, as mentioned in Fast Company’s article “Why Emotionally Intelligent People are More Successful.” The first thing that is essential for any degree of emotional intelligence is self-awareness. This idea of awareness seems to be a big one. The most dangerous negotiation is the one you don’t know you’re in, being aware that the counterpart’s point of view on fairness will not be like yours, self-awareness is the first step to emotional intelligence. Making ourselves more aware, also known as guided discovery or information gathering in a negotiation is paramount to the process every time.

Here are a couple of ways to uncover perception anchors (fairness) and make yourself more aware.
  • Labels
  • The When/What question (not to be confused with when and what questions)


Labels are a great way to pinpoint a lot of things in negotiation. Secondarily, if used properly in succession, they are a great way to access tremendous amounts of information without having to reveal a thing. Now we do not condone hiding pieces of information. In fact, often times sensitive information must be shared in order to make sure you have an alignment. However, well placed verbal observations like labels are a great way to execute empathy and sift through a verbal cascade.

Regarding fairness specifically, it is an emotional term. Labels were brought from a world where the only application of them was emotional context. Theoretically a great marriage, but the execution is key. Another term to add to our list of awareness is one that we stole from American Football – situational awareness. Being able to apply the right label based on the context of the situation and persons involved. One example of a label that applies to many situations is “it seems like you are hesitant.” Or “it seems like you have a reason for saying that.” Just like in football where the slant pass play can almost be run on any down, so can these labels be applied to a fairness issue in negotiation. No matter what the reasoning for someone being hung up on the idea of fairness, it is rooted in some form of hesitation, whether due to fear or love. Accessing the reasoning is what we are trying to accomplish.

When/What Questions

The When/What question refers specifically to a communication effort to draw someone’s attention to a specific moment in time. For example, “when you said X, what did you have in mind?” People often use fairness to manipulate decision making without having any facts or data to back up their positioning. If they had cold hard facts to present they wouldn’t use the word fair to justify, they would lean on their information. Using this when/what dynamic also gives a strong indication of confronting without the confrontational nature as well. Another example is “When you said you were willing to work with me, what did you have in mind?”.

In the end, we all want to be treated fairly whether missionary or mercenary. What gets in the way is the human condition. Wanted to be treated fairly is a very self-righteous and narcissistic approach. When my view of fair is red, and your view of fair is blue. Which one of us is wrong?

Book Negotiation Expert Chris Voss for a keynote

About The Author

Brandon Voss is the Director of Operations and an Instructor/Consultant with The Black Swan Group. Brandon has been instrumental in adapting the FBI’s hostage negotiation techniques to the business world. In addition to training clients, Brandon has guest lectured at USC Marshall School of Business and Georgetown McDonough School of Business.