Document created: 24 August 04
Air University Review, May-June 1970

Some Interpersonal
Aspects of Negotiations

Lieutenant Colonel Victor F. Phillips, Jr.

All Air Force officers in today’s complex, interdependent organizational environments continually engage in negotiations, that is, in formal or informal interpersonal, interactive exchanges aimed at the mutually satisfactory resolution of some form of potential or actual conflict. To stress the interpersonal factor, let me recall some psychological aspects of people which may affect our everyday lives and which could have a very significant bearing on the processes of negotiation. We do not leave our personal feelings, biases, and beliefs at the door before entering into negotiations. These sometimes nebulous but ever present pervasive parts of our psychosocial makeup can have a definite influence on our behavior, how we react to others’ behavior, and how others react to ours.

I will not attempt to offer quick, clean solutions to interpersonal differences. Each negotiation procedure is a unique experience in its own right. To superimpose an unchanging template of personal characteristics over the model of negotiations is to invite a mechanistic, dogmatic solution that would have little reliability and less validity. Rather, I believe it is important to be aware of the problem. The problem is that we are not truly rational and that psychological forces exist which definitely affect our feelings about others. If we recognize this problem and are aware of some of these innate characteristics, we may be better prepared to approach the negotiation process.

physical surroundings

Relatively little need be said about the physical surroundings in which negotiations take place unless there are distracting extremes in such variables as noise, lighting, ringing telephones, air hammers, and the like or even in persistent coughing, smoke-filled rooms, etc. Where possible, of course, physical conditions should be made conducive to unhampered interaction, although they appear (except at extremes) to playa lesser role in negotiations than do such less tangible factors as the psychosocial.

psychological aspects

Perceptions. In our everyday life we perceive or form impressions of people, objects, and situations. Often our perceptions are the result of sensory stimuli; that is, we react to things we see, hear, touch, smell, or taste. We are all familiar with the simple sensory stimulus-response example of putting our hand on a hot stove. We can also “sense” in an intuitive way a situation, as when returning home to find the wife on edge after a particularly trying day. In Air Force organizational life we may perceive or sense an air of friendliness in a meeting, or we may at times feel hostility. We have all experienced those situations in which “the atmosphere was charged with electricity,” or where “you could see the sparks fly.” Sometimes the general atmosphere is overtly apparent to everyone, while at other times one’s sensory devices will pick up subtleties not readily detectable by others.

Significant interaction among people appears to be the very heart of negotiations. In negotiations and the relationships which constitute them, perception plays an important if sometimes intangible role. During negotiations, the people involved perceive each other and interpret the behavior they “see.” Perceiving is not necessarily a slow, careful process of observation, synthesis, and conclusion. Often the perceptual process is fleeting and not even done at the conscious, cognitive level. For example, the way a person is perceived in his role as a negotiator may determine how others react toward him and accept his ideas. A person’s own perceptions of the people with whom he is negotiating will, in part, influence how he functions as a negotiator. In prepararation for negotiations, where facts or rumors exist about other parties, the negotiator takes into account explicitly or implicitly these facts or rumors. The success of negotiations may depend, then, to some extent on how the negotiator is perceived as well as on the issues under negotiation. The ability of people to negotiate may be affected by a rather complex sensory and perceptual process of which they are only dimly aware. The perceiver’s knowledge, adroitness, personality, preparation, and perhaps other factors are related to and dependent upon a perceptual background that has developed over a lifetime. Awareness of perceptual cues and biases should in no way diminish a person’s overt preparations for the negotiations into which he plans to enter; that is, he should not discount visible, tangible items in the belief that only certain other facets of his appearance and personality will be significant. Each of us should be aware that perceptions are a factor in interpersonal relationships.1

Perceptions may not be an accurate measure of what we see, hear, and feel; they can be quite distorted. Too, perceptual distortion may be present and reflected in negotiators’ not “seeing” the same sets of “facts” and “interpretations.”

Turning to specific factors that have a psychological effect on us with respect to others, let us consider the forming of impressions of people and things that may color or interfere with our judgments. Our own values, needs, and expectations will influence the impressions we form of others.

The difficulty in the everyday world is that we can’t always arrange to have our first impressions based on significant material. Thus, the only safeguard is to avoid forming impressions too early in the perceptual process.

First impressions are lasting because they influence the way in which we will “see” all subsequent data about the person. Unfortunately, they are more likely than not to be inaccurate.2

One of the first impressions we gather of people has to do with physical appearance. People have preconceived ideas of what leaders look like, but there has been a tendency to forget the many exceptions. In a speech on leadership, Lieutenant General Ira Eaker, the World War II Eighth Air Force commander, has observed:

I read an acknowledged authority one day who said that all great leaders of the past had one thing in common, great physical stamina, and all great leaders of the future must be sound of wind and limb. A great plea for physical fitness. By a strange coincidence the same day I read a little passage I pass on to you. “Down the streets of Portsmouth, more than a hundred years ago, walked a sailor with one arm, one eye, a persistent state of nerves, and unable to tread a ship’s deck without being seasick. Indeed he would probably have been in a home for incurables, were not his name Admiral Lord Nelson. The man’s spirit drove the flesh.” The point is when weighing the characteristics of a leader, remember a stout spirit can drive a weak body a long way.3

Our perceptual bias may influence our thinking, and we could well have a preconceived notion of what a negotiator “ought” to look like.

As a corollary to physical appearance, consider status. If we are prepared to negotiate with a senior officer and at the time of actual negotiations we are confronted with an individual considerably further down the organizational or rank hierarchy, our perceptions may be changed and our judgments of his behavior considerably influenced.

. . . even though two people behave in identical fashion, status differences between them cause a perceiver to assign different motivations for the behavior. In an experiment, after a high status person and a low status person were introduced to the subject, they were asked by the subject to comply with a request. At the same point in the experiment, both did. The subject, nevertheless, did not perceive both as equally cooperative. He judged the high status person as wanting to cooperate; the low status person as having to cooperate and, in turn, he expressed more liking for the high status than for the low status person.4

Tied in with status is the construct of role. The remarks of a negotiator who represents a particular orientation, say operations, may be perceived differently from the same remarks made by a negotiator who is in research and development. Also, if we know the role of the negotiator in his organization, chances are we will perceive him and his behavior differently than if we do not know his organizational role. For a doctoral dissertation dealing with the role of the Assistant to the President in business settings, people in an organization were asked, “What is the role of your Vice President for Sales?” The question usually evoked a straight answer. But responses regarding the Assistant-to, with his nontask-directed title, suggest often that he fills a nebulous role and has, because of his proximity to the social atom of the President, unknown amounts of power and influence. Reactions of others to the role of the incumbent of the Assistant to the President position indicate altogether different perceptions not necessarily related to that official title.5

Categorizing on the basis of roles is similar to the idea of stereotyping. Stereotyping is sometimes referred to as pictures in people’s heads which guide rightly or wrongly their perceptions of others. Stereotyping sometimes influences our perceptions of particular groups, e.g., poor people, rich people, scientists, doctors, fighter pilots, etc. Stereotyping can certainly occur in negotiations, especially where negotiations are on a sustained basis between unchanging parties. A study by Mason Haire on role perception in labor-management relations is an example of stereotyping.6 Haire used two pictures and four descriptions. Though the pictures were different, they represented middle-aged, moderately well-dressed men with no particular facial expressions. Descriptions contained the same general characteristics, but items were arranged so that the descriptions did not sound like the same man. In half the cases, the man in the picture was identified as “local manager of a small plant which is a branch of a large manufacturing concern,” and in the other half as “Secretary-Treasurer of his Union.” The subjects of the study were 76 members of a Central Labor Council and 108 representatives of management, all from the same geographical area. The subjects were told that this experiment was part of a research project to ascertain how well people could analyze personality when given but a few facts. After studying a picture for a brief period, the subjects were asked to check from a list of over 200 adjectives those which they thought applied to the man in the picture. With the data accumulated, the researchers hoped to gain tentative answers to the questions, “How does management see labor and management, and how does labor see labor and management?” Without going into any of the specific statistical data, the most apparent conclusion is as follows:

. . . when a member of either group (management or labor) describes a person, the description varies markedly depending on the role of the person described, although the facts and the pictures are identical.7

Halo effect is another factor that could affect negotiations. The halo can serve as a screen, keeping the perceiver from actually judging several traits; instead, he overreacts to only one trait. For example, a commander may single out one aspect of an officer’s record—either good or bad—and use this as a basis for his officer effectiveness report (OER) ratings. Specifically, appearance could override other considerations that might have more relevance to the job at hand. An Army study showed that officers who were well liked by their men were perceived to be more intelligent than officers who were not as well liked. Yet both groups of officers had virtually the same scores on intelligence tests.8 Halo effect is not just peculiar to individuals judging other individuals; groups may judge a situation and, because of known facts or perceived relationships, apply a halo. 

Projection is a defense mechanism wherein our current emotional state tends to influence our perceptions of others. If we have been severely reprimanded by the boss, we may tend to look upon others who remind us of the boss as being aggressive and of potential harm to us. Another form of projection is to attribute to others some of our own undesirable characteristics or traits. For example, if we are aggressive, we may see this trait in others more readily than would another perceiver who is low on the aggression scale.

Another factor concerns the characteristics of the perceiver. Current findings appear to indicate that an individual uses himself as a norm against which to judge others.9 Five conclusions regarding this area are as follows:

1. Knowing yourself makes it easier to see others accurately.
2. Our own characteristics affect the characteristics we are more likely to see in others.
3. The person who accepts himself is more likely to be able to see favorable aspects of other people.
4. A corollary is the finding that, for people we like, we tend to perceive more accurately the ways in which they are
    similar to us and less accurately their unlike ways.
5. Accuracy in perceiving others is not a single skill that some people have and others do not.

Relating these findings to our previous analysis of perception, we should ask ourselves the question when judging another, “Am I looking at him and forming my impressions of his behavior, or am I just comparing him to myself?” Obviously, such an incisive, searching question could easily shed light on our approach to negotiations. It is possible to maximize the microcosm of negotiators’ personality differences almost to the exclusion of the larger issues at hand! Caution: I am not saying to neglect the personal aspects of the negotiation; I am only saying to recognize them and deal with them but not to be obsessed by them.

As negotiators, we try to be objective and get the necessary data. However, in so doing we may be deceived into believing that facts and values are necessarily separated.

It would be very useful and convenient if the premises of administrative [or negotiation] choices could always be divided sharply into factual and value premises. Unfortunately, a clear separation of these two types of premises is not usually possible. Almost every value premise has some factual element imbedded in it—an element that cannot be completely removed—because most ends or goals are at least partly means to more final ends rather than ends in themselves.10

So far, I have neglected to mention certain well-known biases which we encounter, at least through reading, almost every day: cultural, ethnic, religious, and racial biases. We should recognize that these biases can influence us and our interactions with others. Often we tell ourselves that our degree of maturity and sophistication obviates these biases’ entering into the picture. But bias can be insidious, almost subconscious, and already programmed into our emotional if not cognitive processes.

Before going on to consideration of groups, we might conclude this section by restressing the complexity of man. Maslow has given us his famous hierarchy in which man’s wants and needs are depicted in an ascending structure.11 From the bottom to the top, man is concerned with physiological, safety, and social needs. Following these come needs for ego-satisfaction and self-esteem, for autonomy and independence, and, finally, for self-actualization in the sense of maximum use of all his resources. We cannot leave our feelings, needs, motives, and perceptual errors at the door to the negotiations room. Man is wanting and complex; and much as we would like to be objective in the negotiation process, it would be difficult to do so without totally removing the human actors.

Man is not only complex, but also highly variable; he has many motives which are arranged in some sort of hierarchy of importance to him, but this hierarchy is subject to change from time to time and situation to situation; furthermore, motives interact and combine into complex motive patterns. . . .12


Since negotiations take place between groups about as often as they do between individuals, we should consider some characteristics of groups. Certainly some of the interpersonal aspects that apply to individuals will apply also to groups. Groups, though, exert certain unique forces on their members.

It has been noted that intergroup conflicts . . . probably dissipate more energy and money than any other single organizational disease. Intergroup conflict, with its “win-lose” orientation, its dysfunctional loyalty (to the group or product, not to the truth), its cognitive distortions of the outsider (the “enemy”), and its inability to reach what has been called “creative synthesis,” effectively disrupts the commitment to truth.13

I think everyone will agree that this statement all too often applies to negotiations. Perhaps we had better take the win-lose concept out of negotiations so that specific items are not viewed in this context!

It has been said that a group reflects synergism; that is, a group is more than the sum of its parts, something more than the individuals in it.

Norms of a group usually refer to rules of behavior that have been accepted by members of the group and that specify what the members should do. A group exerts pressure on its members to conform to its norms, and the pressure gives rise to some uniformity of behavior and the gaining of group goals. A member of the group who deviates from the norms may do one of four things: conform, change the norms, remain a deviant, or leave the group.14 Regarding negotiations and the pressure to conform within a group, the following statement appears significant:

There will be great pressure to conform. . .when a highly cohesive group is working toward an important goal or resolving an important issue and faces a large discrepant minority.15

Cohesiveness is defined, generally, as the attraction a group has for its members. It appears, then, that there must be cohesiveness even before there can be norms, for without a binding force rules of behavior and conformity would be unenforceable. By the same token, a highly cohesive group may not necessarily be a high-performing group unless the norms sanction it. Highly cohesive groups express hostility toward external threats; therefore, if one is negotiating an issue with such a group, he may expect to find solidarity and his presence acting as a coalescing factor.

Group vs. individual problem solving. With respect to negotiations, it might be worth investing ating whether a group would function better than an individual: Should we send out a team or one person to do our negotiating? Any attempted specific answer applicable to all situations would be spurious. However, we can be aware of some such general statements as the following:

1. Group performance is frequently better than that of the average individual; it is seldom better than the best individual. In fact, the group’s superior performance may well result from the efforts of one superior problem solver.

2. The measure of a group’s efficiency should be the total number of man-hours spent in solving the problem, not just the lapsed time spent by a group compared with [that spent by] an individual.

3. Group problem solving may be preferred to individual problem solving even though its superior efficiency cannot be demonstrated, when acceptance of the solution is important or when morale is a relevant consideration.16

Furthermore, it appears that the social aspect of group problem solving brings about the possibility of either a competitive or a cooperative internal relationship. As might be suspected, the cooperative group is superior on many counts, especially in the areas of coordination, interaction, and division of labor among members.

From a social viewpoint, any number of interactions take place within a group. Yet this social factor of having people work together should not be expected to produce any magical effects.

Cognitive aspects of individual versus group problem solving should also be considered. “Perhaps the most significant advantage of groups over individuals is found in the type of problem that requires an extensive background of varied information for its solution.”17 Of course, these varied backgrounds may also be accompanied by varying values, emphasis, and points of view which could create dissension and make the price of the inputs quite high. In the case of ambiguity, the pool of opinion in a group may lead to a more accurate conclusion than an individual could make working alone. 18 Where negotiations may involve multifaceted, complex, even unclear issues, it might be well to consider the use of a cooperative group with varied backgrounds. Also, there tends to be something of a better psychological acceptance of decisions reached by a group than those reached by an individual.

Innovative but risky ventures, more adventurous policy decisions, somewhat risky capital investment, even methods changes of some types are more likely to be recommended after group decision than by individual’s forwarding their recommendations on an individual basis.19

We can say that, in general, groups are effective

–whose practices and procedures enable them to carry out systematically the steps in problem solving and whose
  members have skills appropriate to the nature of the problems faced;
–that have received training in problem-solving strategies and whose efforts are appropriately motivated;
–that have a stable status system, familiar to all its members;
–whose size is large enough to accomplish the task but not so large as to introduce distracting organizational
–that are cohesive, interacting cooperatively with members possessing compatible personality characteristics; and
–that are operating under mild to moderate but not extreme stress.20


Communication is a sharing of information between at least two people and may be accomplished verbally, by written transmission, or even symbolically. Attitudes and behavior are forms of communication. Negotiations cannot take place without some form of communication, nor should negotiations be limited to interchange among participants; they should include results and aftermath as well.

Communication systems are filled with “noise.” While noise may, quite literally, involve physical disturbance, of more importance appear to be factors such as perceptual distortion, biases, anxiety, stress, status differentials—all of which contribute to the noise syndrome. For example, we would hope that “true” communication in an organization would take place between a boss and his subordinate. But suppose the boss is an autocrat and is merely looking for support—a “yes” man—from his subordinate. If the subordinate perceives his own security, promotion potential, and the like as a function of pleasing the boss, one may be sure that he will carefully filter or screen his communications to the boss. Likewise, a session where subordinates have an opportunity to talk to the boss may not involve communication at all. If the boss, through overt behavior and attitudes, indicates a threat to the subordinates, there may be an exchange of conversation but no real communication. Another form of noise is more subtle but can be just as debilitating. Communications carry with them value judgments. Even where “open” communication exists, a person generally cranks in his own feelings, and this can distort the communication. In deferring to the judgment of a person whom we regard as superior (in status, rank, knowledge, position, etc.), we may be merely adding to the noise. Negotiators may engage in double-talk, intentionally or not, masking the real issues. All of this tends to negate real understanding or at least make it more difficult.

What did he say? This question indicates more than just physical distortion in hearing or reading. Carl Rogers is concerned with the concept of understanding others.21 If we allow ourselves to be too strongly influenced by preconceived prejudices, we do not listen with understanding. We should, therefore, be concerned with not only what is being said but also why it is being said. Consider some of Rogers’ statements about understanding:

In my relationships with persons I have found that it does not help, in the long run, to act as though I
   were something that I am not.
I find that I am more effective when I can listen acceptantly to myself, and can be myself.
I have found it of enormous value when I can permit myself to understand another person.
I have found it enriching to open channels whereby others can communicate their feelings, their private
   perceptual worlds, to me.
I have found it highly rewarding when I can accept another person.
The more I am open to the realities in me and in the other person, the less I find myself wishing to rush
   in and “fix things.”
It has been my experience that persons have a basically positive direction.
Life, at its best, is a flowing, changing process in which nothing is fixed.

These statements have relevance for the negotiator in that he must recognize that he is the possessor of a complex value system. Therefore, he should be “open” to conflicting motives and complexity in others.

Communication networks focus on communications as a linking process. In negotiations, the parties must interact, and the “communication network” provides interconnecting channels through which messages travel. But it must be recognized that this network is a very complex mechanism, containing intermeshed loops which do not necessarily behave in a continuous, direct pattern. The network receives inputs, processes these inputs, and produces feedback or outputs. For the purposes of negotiations, we should attempt to maximize speed and accuracy in the network and ensure some degree of satisfaction for the network participants. There is no “one best way” to establish communication nets. Much depends on how many are involved in the negotiations, how complex the issues are, how much “noise” exists (e.g., If we are negotiating with foreigners, what are the role and influence of the interpreter?), the composition and attitudes of the group, etc. A paradox does become apparent with nets. Those nets which maximize speed and make for greater efficiency in the transmission of information and decision-making may minimize the degree of personal satisfaction of persons in the group. For example, where one man speaks for the group, he may be able to receive, assimilate, and react to the issues without consulting his colleagues. This is certainly quick, but how about the feelings of the rest of the negotiating team?

In this concluding section, it seems appropriate to quote a few passages from Mary Parker Follett on the constructive resolution of conflict in business settings:

. . . I should like to ask you to agree for the moment, to think of conflict as neither good nor bad; to consider it without ethical prejudgment; to think of it not as warfare, but as the appearance of difference, difference of opinions, of interests. For that is what conflict means—difference.

There are three main ways of dealing with conflict: domination, compromise and integration. Domination, obviously, is a victory of one side over the other. This is the easiest way of dealing with conflict, the easiest for the moment but not usually successful in the long run.

The second way of dealing with conflict, that of compromise, we understand well, for it is the way we settle most of our controversies; each side gives up a little in order to have peace, or, to speak more accurately, in order that the activity which has been interrupted by the conflict may go on. It is the accepted, the approved way of ending controversy. Yet no one really wants to compromise, because that means a giving up of something. Is there then any other method of ending conflict? There is a way beginning now to be recognized at least, and even occasionally followed: when two desires are integrated, that means that a solution has been found in which both desires have found a place, that neither side has had to sacrifice anything.22

At the beginning of this article the idea of resolving a real or potential conflict to the mutual satisfaction of all concerned figured in the definition of negotiations. It is my firm belief that a positive approach to negotiations and the seeking of a mutually agreeable solution may well be best achieved by Mary Parker Follett’s idea of integration.

In order to do this, one important facet must be the recognition of the existence of individual differences among people. If we are ready to reject the feeling that others are, or should be, exactly like us and reject the notion that man is a rational-economic model whose biases, feelings, background, and affective influences have been left outside the negotiation room, then we will have taken a quantum step forward. We have feelings and others have feelings. We behave and others react, and vice versa. If we at least recognize and are positively prepared for these differences, negotiations may have a better chance of being integrative, rather than compromised or based upon domination.

Obviously, the analysis did not take into consideration the issues at stake in any particular set of negotiations, nor were relative power positions discussed. Both issues and power are interdependent with interpersonal factors. However, issues and power positions may be known before negotiations take place; interpersonal differences may not be revealed until the negotiation process is under way.

As long as people interact together, we will have to concern ourselves with interpersonal aspects of human behavior. If we recognize and consider them, we should be able to negotiate from a more enlightened position.

United States Air Force Academy


1. Timothy W. Costello and Sheldon S. Zalkind, Psychology in Administration (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963), p. 3. Henceforth referred to as Costello.

2. Ibid., p. 24.

3. Ira C. Eaker, “Some Observations on Leadership,” address given at the Fifteenth Anniversary Celebration of Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, 17 March 1961.

4. Costello, pp. 46-47.

5. Victor F. Phillips, Jr., An Exploratory Study of the Assistant-to the President Position in’ Business Settings, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Graduate School of Business, Indiana University, June 1967.

6. Costello, pp. 25-33.

7. Ibid., p. 29.

8. Ibid., p. 35.

9. Ibid., pp. 45-46.

10. Herbert A. Simon, Donald W. Smithburg, and Victor A. Thompson, Public Administration (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), pp. 58-59.

11. A. H. Maslow, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychological Review, 1943, No.4, pp. 370-96.

12. Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Psychology (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965), p. 60.

13. Warren G. Bennis, Changing Organizations (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), p. 57.

14. Philip B. Applewhite, Organizational Behavior (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965), p. 37.

15. Ibid., p. 41.

16. Costello, pp. 429-30.

17. Ibid., p. 440.

18. Ibid., p. 441.

19. Ibid., p. 443.

20. Ibid., p. 444.

21. Warren G. Bennis, Edgar H. Schein, David E. Berlew, and Fred I. Steele, Interpersonal Dynamics (Homewood, Illinois: The Dorsey Press, 1964), pp. 740-51.

22. Mary Parker Follett, “Constructive Conflict, or How to Deal with Differences in Business Administration,” in Edward C. Bursk et al. (eds.), The World of Business (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962), Vol. IV, pp. 2013-27.


Lieutenant Colonel Victor F. Phillips, Jr., (D.B.A., Indiana University) is Associate Professor and Director, Division of Organizational Behavior, Department of Psychology and Leadership, U.S. Air Force Academy. Following Officer Candidate School, he completed navigator bombardier training and served a tour in Korea, 1953. Subsequent assignments have been in Air Rescue Service; as instructor, AFROTC, University of Connecticut; education and plans officer, Hq AFROTC, Maxwell AFB, Alabama; Aide-de-Camp to Commander, Air University; and as graduate student, Indiana University, until his present assignment in 1967. He teaches evening classes at University of Denver College of Business.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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