Sometimes when we offer negotiation training, we learn as much as we teach. And occasionally, what we learn can make us rethink the meaning of our work.

Recently in a training for UN develop­ment agency leaders, I presented the Mutual Gains Approach to negotia­tion. The UN group — about 20 men and women, at the peak of their careers — came from all over the world. They had plenty of experience in difficult ne­gotiation situations: electoral disputes, ethnic conflicts, politicized relation­ships between donors and recipient governments, and in-fighting within and across their agencies, to name a few.

As part of my presentation on the Mutual Gains Approach, I offered some of our findings about the importance of trustworthiness, and what we need to do to earn the trust of others — demonstrating capacity, credibility, and concern.

This set of ideas sparked a very intense discussion among the participants. They all had a good grasp of Mutual Gains principles, and they quickly understood the analytics. What they really wanted to talk about was the significance of trust in their work: how to maintain it while dealing with difficult issues in relationships; trustworthiness as their most impor­tant asset in the eyes of government counterparts; and how trustworthiness matters to them as a personal virtues.

That last point — trustworthiness as a virtue, and virtue as an important issue in their professional lives — gave me pause. Generally, we at CBI stress that “Mutual Gains” is not the same as “nice.” We present experimental and clini­cal evidence that “enlightened self-interest” is a good way to approach any negotiation where there may be potential for joint gain. And we argue that a focus on fairness in negotia­tion makes sense from the perspective of reciprocity, reputa­tion and relationship. But we don’t claim to teach “ethical negotiation,” and we don’t argue that “Mutual Gains” is a virtuous approach to negotiation.

Maybe we should.

If we could do it without sounding hopelessly naïve, and if we had some base of evidence, perhaps we could offer a clearer, and richer, conception of the virtues of Mutual Gains negotiation.

My intuition and experience is that negotiators who com­mit to finding outcomes that satisfy their negotiation part­ners, not only to get something in return, but also because they believe that it is right to treat others fairly, are more likely to be satisfied with their agreements than negotiators who are motivated only by the desire to get what they need from the exchange. But “treating others fairly” is a very gen­eral type of virtue, and there are others that seem relevant to negotiation.

We could begin with a more explicit definition of virtue. A simple starting point is to link virtue to morality: virtue is conduct by an individual in accordance with a society’s moral code. Helpful in an abstract sense, this definition still leaves us asking whether there is some broadly agreed, and reasonably well defined set of virtues that we could link to the practice of negotiation.

As it turns out, there may be. The psychologists Chris­topher Peterson and Martin Seligman looked across the world’s cultures, religions and philosophies to develop a list of six primary virtues1. Their argument is that a) most people in most cultures believe that these virtues are es­sential to living a good life; and b) striving to enact these virtues helps individuals to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives. The “big six” are:

  • Wisdom - curiosity, judgment, ingenuity, perspective;
  • Courage - valor, perseverance;
  • Humanity - kindness, love;
  • Justice - citizenship, fairness;
  • Temperance - self-control, prudence, humility; and
  • Transcendence - gratitude, hope, spirituality, forgiveness.

In our work as facilitators and mediators of complex negotiations, we have seen these virtues in action, many times. We’ve mediated land use conflicts with activists and developers who were wise enough to formulate a fifty-year vision for their community as a basis for negotiating com­mitments. We’ve seen the courage of government officials who, in the face of enormous pressure from vested inter­ests, chose to open regulatory negotiations to a wide range of stakeholder representatives, and commit themselves to making the playing field as level as possible.

We’ve heard Pakistani and American leaders, caught in a tense and deeply mistrustful relationship, tell personal, humanizing stories about why the relationship matters to them. And we’ve seen how that storytelling enables them to accept each other’s needs for security, prosperity and social cohesion as the foundation of an honest dialogue.

Nothing is more central to our views of justice than crime and punishment. In our work with police, prisons, social service agencies and advocates for ex-offenders, we have seen remarkable evolution in people’s views on how to maintain public safety while providing ex-offenders with real opportunities to thrive in their communities.

In that same work, the process of negotiation has led stri­dent stakeholders — tough-as-nails district attorneys, vic­tims of serious crimes, ex-offenders who have been judged long after their sentences have ended — to more temperate views of each other, of the problems they face together, and of possible solutions.

Finally, and most controversially, there may be times when people engaged in Mutual Gains negotiation experience a sense of transcendence by working with others in pursuit of a higher goal. Without suggesting that negotiation is or should be a primary vehicle for that experience, we have heard community leaders, government officials, scientists, corporate executives and others say that they’ve found a higher meaning and purpose by negotiating in good faith, with others who are committed to doing the same.

From these and many other moments, it seems clear that negotiation can provide an arena for the demonstration of personal virtues. It’s not so clear that we can — or should — teach negotiation as an opportunity for people to act virtuously.

I’m convinced that it’s important to name the issue of personal values and virtues in negotiation. Beyond that, the terrain needs more exploration. Here are some key questions:

Can we come up with a clearer understanding of what it means for people act “virtuously” in negotiation: is it fundamentally the commitment to meet the interests of others equally with one’s own, or something else?

Let’s assume that people have some predispositions toward virtue, shaped by their life experiences (such as religion, upbringing, education, role models). In ne­gotiations, how do those predispositions interact with contextual factors— the substance of the negotiation, their organizational incentives, and the nature of their relationship with negotiating partners, and others — to drive the balance between narrow self-interest and virtu­ous behavior?

What can negotiators do to motivate virtuous behavior in their counterparts, so that all are committed to fair­ness, courage, and wisdom in the negotiation process?

We know how to help people achieve joint gains through negotiation. It’s worth considering whether and how we can help them negotiate in ways that bring out the best in themselves and in others as well.

1Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Hand­book and Classification (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association and Oxford University Press, 2004). The authors equate character strengths and virtues.