Good Negotiators Know it's Never Just About Money

I used to help attorneys, insurance adjusters, physicians and patients resolve medical malpractice cases. Most attorneys and mediators call these cases “pure money” disputes because they don’t believe the personal relationship between the doctor and his former patient has anything to do with the resolution of the lawsuit.

It only took a few months mediating all types of litigated disputes – fights over intellectual property rights, unfair competition, collection, personal injury, professional malpractice and breaches of contract – to conclude that no dispute is “only about money.”

The negotiator who understands that there is no “pure money” negotiation, has reached the status of “super negotiator” because she has already learned something about what motivates people and has already broken through the mass illusion that money is a singular, objective metric of value to all parties.

Money is a Subjective Measure of Value

As I wrote in an academic article on the many subjective meanings of money

Although contemporary money seems to have shed all of its qualities except its quantity, ‘its oneness or fiveness or fiftyness,’ we do not in fact use money as if it were fungible. We experience the value of a dollar earned differently from the way we experience one that is stolen or given to us as a gift and we spent it differently as well.

Even money’s form exerts some control over the way in which we are willing to deploy it. Credit card companies have recently seen the benefit in selling ‘debit’ cards as a means of making the gift of money (rather than carefully chosen things) appropriate in settings where cash would seem gauche or even insulting.

Gifts of money are generally meant to be expended on a single item or experience and are typically delivered with injunctions that the recipient buy something ‘frivolous’ or do something ‘luxurious.’The recipients of ‘cash’ gifts are expected to report back on the special use to which the gift was put.

If the beneficiary of the largesse were to spend the money on rent or groceries, it would surely be taken as an insult to the donor and embarrassment to the donee, or else cause for general alarm at the donee’s unacknowledged impoverished state.

When we respond to our friend’s needs rather than their desires, we tend not to give monetary gifts but to (often reluctantly) make loans. And where we might happily and without serious thought spend $50 on a gift, we might well wring our hands at the prospect of lending such a sum for necessities.

A dollar is not simply a dollar.

In helping attorneys negotiate the resolution of litigation, mediators aid them in resolving the non-monetary justice issues – issues capable of resolution primarily through a process that begins with accountability and ends with apology.

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