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Why fairness is never black and white

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Negotiation touches every part of our lives. Relationships in business and in our personal lives are negotiated. And the skills to do it effectively can often mean the difference between getting what you want or losing out. You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate!

In the first section of the book, How to be a Great Negotiator, written by property economist, investor and developer Neville Berkowitz, the characteristic traits of a great negotiator are explored in short, bite-sized nuggets of advice.

Over the next 132 days, we will bring you the traits needed to succeed at the art of negotiating.

(Courtesy of PersonalEmpowerment.co)

46 Fairness

Fairness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It is an ideal to strive for but also relative and subjective – a matter of perspective. Your sense of what is fair or not is influenced by your cultural and personal values. Nomads may have a different sense of fairness than farmers. And a pickpocket or a drug dealer probably will have a different sense of fairness than a judge or a preacher. This matter of fairness is more complicated in cross-cultural or multi-country negotiations. In some countries, your word and a handshake are considered sacrosanct. In other countries, the signed contract and the fine print, rather than what you say or verbally agree to, are all that matters. In some countries, bribery and kickbacks are considered corrupt and are illegal. In other countries they are standard business practices, and to omit them is to take yourself out of the deal.

In any particular negotiation, your concept of fairness must take into consideration whom you are dealing with – their personalities, ethical character and country of origin – in order to understand their perception of what is and is not fair.

In striving for the ideal of fairness, the Golden Rule applies in principle, though it is not always applied in fact. We all know that the law, like life, is not always fair. Yet what matters in the end in a negotiation is that your concept of fairness matches that of the other party. Without this, no agreement can be reached. In practical terms you could say that fairness is whatever two negotiating parties finally agree is fair.

But fairness isn’t completely subjective. Exploitation, coercion, and unfairness can be involved even when two parties come to an agreement – for example, where there is an unequal power relationship.

Large corporations and impoverished foreign workers may reach an agreement, and even sign a contract, in which the corporation agrees to pay the workers pennies a day. But this cannot really be called fair, despite the contract, because the impoverished, unemployed worker has no power in the negotiation. Or a desperate man may borrow money from a loan shark at an abnormally high rate of interest, but no one would call such a loan fair. For another example, two negotiating parties cannot decide what is fair to a third party who is not present in the negotiation, especially when the outcome of the negotiation will negatively affect the absent party.

Fairness is an important quality in a great negotiator, and necessary for win/win negotiating. Ultimately, your sense of fairness depends on your ethical character and integrity. If you have these, and they are important to you, then you will do everything in your power to preserve them – and this necessarily includes being fair.


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