The Negotiator Magazine

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In Negotiation, The Past Has No Future

Steven P. Cohen

"To enforce the lies of the present, one must erase the truths of the past."
George Orwell

What is going on here? Are we confusing negotiation with the authoritarian view of the future espoused by George Orwell in his novel 1984? This is one of the best quotations I have read on the relationship of the past to the present/future. Ignoring their integral connection will not work in any relationship, business or private. However, we must remember that good negotiation is not an authoritarian process, but rather a means for bringing about fair agreements.

When people negotiate, they may be influenced by their prior experience in many different ways. The cultural norms and expectations of one’s family, ethnic group, nationality, or corporate silo are all significant in shaping expectations and negotiating style. Negotiating with someone who represents a profession, a corporate silo, or another cultural group with which one’s own group (profession/silo/cultural) has had a troublesome history can certainly be difficult, particularly if the past problems are considered issues to be negotiated in the present.

For the negotiation process to make sense, a good negotiator needs to consider how much importance to give to the past, and how much his/her interests need to focus on the future. The negotiator also needs to understand how much importance other parties place on the past. It is also not realistic to expect any party to respond favorably to attempts to change their own view of history. In criminal law, new techniques such as DNA testing can change the outcomes of decades-old trials. In business and personal negotiation, rewriting history based on new technology is far less likely.

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January 2007