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Fair Exchange


Disciplines > Negotiation > Negotiation articles > Fair Exchange

The need for fairness | Fair process | Fair decisions | Fair results | See also


'Fair Exchange' is a common saying that we use when a short negotiation has led to a simple and satisfying barter. Creating a Fair Exchange in larger negotiations is also

The need for fairness

As people, we have a fundamental need for fairness in our interactions with others. This need often becomes prevalent during negotiation as we often suspect others of less that fair play.

In particular, if the relationship between the negotiating parties is important, then fairness is necessary if this is to be sustained. If the relationship is completely unimportant, then caveat emptor ('buyer beware') applies.

Note that fairness is perceived as an emotion: we feel satisfied if something is fair and cheated if we are duped. Managing fairness is also a process of managing perception and meaning, and hence emotion.

Fair process

If we perceive the negotiation process as being unfairly stacked against us, we will be loath to make any trades or even come to any agreement, as we may well suspect that we are on the losing end of a win-lose situation.

To create a sense of fair play, you can start by discussing the process by which the negotiation is conducted, for example with respect to demonstrable honesty and factual evidence. (In early arms limitation negotiations, the first several months were spent negotiating the shape of the negotiating table!).

If you perceive that the process is unfair, then you can also bring this up during a negotiation, effectively sending the whole show back to square one. The social needs for fairness make this a strong card to play.

Fair decisions

A particular area for ensuring fairness is to ensure decisions are fair, and the way to ensure decisions are fair in the criteria we use to decide. For example, deciding where go on holiday may use criteria of cost, near the sea, things to do, cater for children, etc.

A typical way to find fair criteria is to ask 'How shall we decide?' In doing so you invite the other person to collaborate in the process of searching for equitable decision criteria. This can result in a sub-negotiation about what actually is fair and not fair.

Fair results

The real test of fairness of a negotiation is in the results that both sides get. In an unfair negotiation, one person gets everything they want and the other person gets very little. Fair results means that each person gets the important things that they need and gives up some of the less important things.

In a zero-sum negotiation, there is a 'zone of fairness', in which one person does get more than the other, but not to the extent of such extremes as ruining them or otherwise causing them unfair hardship.

Note that fairness is also a matter of skill and values. If one person is skilful in negotiating and has values that do not respect the other person, then they will happily 'take the other person to the cleaners' whilst considering them a hapless victim.

See also

Need for fairness


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