It is rarely the right thing to do to simply ‘split the difference’. When buying a dining room table, he prefers dark woods, say mahogany and his partner prefers lighter woods, perhaps pine, but neither would be happy with oak. Chris Voss, a former hostage negotiator, in his book Never Split the Difference has a more colourful illustration. In the situation where a terrorist, holding four hostages demands a jet to Cuba, it would be absurd to counter with two hostages, a helicopter to New Jersey then maybe an Uber for the rest of the journey.
Finding the middle ground is not splitting the difference. It’s a move away from classic, positional negotiating. Positional negotiation involves us both holding a position and then alternating between a willingness to walk away and reluctant compromise until we agree to split the difference at whatever point we reach before really committing to the former or doing no more of the latter. The car salesperson asks for £50,000 you offer £30,000 and you each feign compromise and indifference until you settle on £40,000. It’s an unrelenting focus on a single variable in pantomime predictability.
Finding the middle ground is based on understanding interests. Does the buyer really need a sun roof? is a service plan important? would the purchase be more valuable to the dealer before the end of the month? When needs are understood, there is a greater likelihood of creating more value. An important ask of one person may be an easy concession for the other to make. Interesting, valuable things happen when we negotiate around needs.
And this is not just the province of brokers, lawyer and international trade negotiators. In a study of more than 9,000 people across a wide range of professions for his book To Sell is Human, Dan Pink found that we spend around 24 minutes of every hour engaged in persuading, influencing or convincing others. Pink calls it ‘non-sales selling’. It’s what we all do. Buying a car, asking for a pay rise, changing the priority of your project, deciding which film to see at the cinema are all negotiations. Being a colleague, parent, sibling, partner or friend requires moving others. Persuasion, as Pink puts it, is distinctly human.
So finding the middle ground for a mediator importantly starts with finding. Identifying the deeper needs, interests and perspectives without making judgement or taking sides. It’s a process of discovery, to uncover as much information as possible. It’s good, old fashioned listening.
So the middle ground is not the mid-point. It’s not two hostages, half a car or oak furniture. It's the process of understanding, uncovering novel and interesting ways that we can help the other. It's something we find.