[Note: regular readers of this blog will notice the title of this post is waaay off topic. But bear with me. There’s a tenuous link to the usual subject matter.]

At the bus stop, reading Twitter, I was struck by the antagonism of political tweets.  Are the actions of the Right ever actually influenced by all these vicious tweets from the Left?  Or vice versa?

What about news stories, particularly those documenting the assertions made by the two sides?    To what extent do they assist the public in engaging in meaningful discussion? To what extent do they instead repel the public from the very issues they should care about?

Outright antagonism, laced with personal attacks, is a blunt tool. Imagine if you acted like that in the workplace. Would you really expect to influence anyone’s views? When is the last time an antagonistic colleague influenced your views? I do presentations about dialogue skills in the workplace, and one thing that really resonates with audiences is that there’s a better way.  A way of talking with people that is calmer, less stressful and more persuasive.

Let’s take a quick look at that way, and then see how it could make journalism more engaging and, most of all, more useful.

A better way to discuss issues

A negotiation is just “a discussion intended to produce agreement”.  It may be in a context where we formally call it a negotiation, such as a car sale or a peace treaty; or it may as simple as two people at a whiteboard trying to agree on a business issue. I suggest that there’s also another, much broader kind of negotiation. It’s the complex, multi-way negotiation between politicians, special interest groups and the general public as we try to produce some level of agreement on the next steps for the country.

When it comes to negotiation, one approach has proven itself repeatedly, in contexts ranging from business meetings to war zones. The most striking thing about this approach is that it’s not what you expect it to be. It’s not manipulative.  It’s not underhanded.  It does not rely on any innate “sales skills”.   But it is one thing…   effective.

It’s called Principled Negotiation.  Principled Negotiation is the subject of the classic book Getting To Yes.  It’s been field tested in business, in international relations, and in the routine discussions of everyday life.  I often find it useful in my own work in IT. It’s based on four key ideas:

  1. Separate people from the problem.  Avoid focussing on people and thereby framing the negotiation as a personal battle between “us” and “them”; instead adopt the attitude that we (together) have a problem.
  2. Focus on interests; not positions. Avoid starting with precisely-stated desired outcomes – be they prices, cease-fire lines or whatever. Instead focus your attention on the underlying needs, desires and interests of both parties.  Here I outline a classic example from Getting to Yes, plus a personal one from one of my own projects.
  3. Generate options for mutual gain. Often the best solution to the problem is not even on the table at the start of the discussion. It needs to be produced through conscious a process of invention and discovery.
  4. Use objective criteria.  A little data trumps a lot of heated words.

I cannot stress enough how powerful and useful these four points are.  If you work in business, a technical field, politics or journalism, you really must read the book – both because it’s excellent and because I simply can’t do it justice in this brief post.  The book is based on excellent work by the Negotiation Project at Harvard Law School, it’s very easy to read, and over 1 million copies have been sold.

For now, let’s take the effectiveness of Principled Negotiation “as read” and move on to looking at how it could be applied to journalism.  I suggest it could dramatically increase the value journalism offers to society.

An example

Consider the current discussions around extending the runway at Wellington’s international airport.  One gets the impression from the media that it’s a battle between local residents and business interests. Let’s look at a few ways Principled Negotiation could be applied.


Residents who live near the airport have a legitimate interest in keeping noise levels down. Who wants to be woken by a large jet at some ungodly hour! Both sides of the debate need to recognise the legitimacy of this interest.  Instead, we hear residents quoted on everything but this issue. We hear them saying that the extension is not really needed, that it will cost too much, that it will hurt the environment. When people who clearly have a vested interest talk about everything except that interest, they undermine their own credibility. Arguments about cost, benefit and environmental harm may well be true, but they’re hard to take seriously when we suspect that they’re being made for a totally unrelated reason – the desire to minimise aircraft noise.  So put that desire on the table in its own right.  “I don’t want to be woken in the middle of the night”, is a perfectly legitimate interest.  It should be said.  And it should be respected by those who want to extend the runway.  It should be respected not by lip-service, but by being placed front and centre in the planning process. Which leads us on to….


How many different ways could be invented to minimise noise impacts?  Free double glazing and other sound-proofing for everyone near the airport?  Creative flight scheduling to ensure the newer, larger planes seldom fly when residents are asleep?

And while we’re on the topic of options, what other options are there instead of extending the runway?  The benefit of a runway extension is that travellers can avoid a tedious and time-consuming transfer in Auckland. But how else could the time and inconvenience of that transfer be reduced?  How long does the typical transfer take now, and what could be done to reduce it? Even simple things may help: for instance, making sure that whenever a transfer passenger walks out of the domestic terminal, there is always a transfer bus parked there ready to pick them up.  And that it would always leave in 5 minutes or less.

Objective Criteria

What information can we find from overseas about airports that have tried to speed up transfer times?  What did they try?  How well did it work?

On the environmental side, instead of reporting a war of words about whether the extension will harm sea life, why not stick a diver down there?  Take some photos, and show the public what sea life will be affected by the extension?  Or is the bay already so damaged by humans that 300m of runway actually won’t make matters any worse?

And then there’s the economic/financial stuff: which routes are likely to have enough Wellington traffic to make them economically viable?  And how many will have to keep going through Auckland simply because there are not enough passengers to Wellington alone?  (For instance, I imagine that there would never be a direct Wellington to LA flight.)  Therefore, how many actual journeys, made by actual Wellingtonians, would be improved by the runway extension?  This could all be calculated, from unbiased sources.

Considering noise: how exactly does the volume of the newer larger jets compare with the smaller, but older, ones that have used the airport in recent decades?  And how exactly would the noise of a jet at the end of the proposed runway differ from that of one 300m to the south, at the end of the existing runway?  These questions too can be answered from unbiased sources.

Separating People from the Problem

We, the people of Wellington, should collectively share the challenging problem of access to our city.  We live in the most remote capital city in the world, so improving access is a legitimate interest.  So is care for our environment.  So is wise use of public funds.  And so is the sleep and peace of local residents. This complex balancing act is our problem. Any healthy approach to solving the problem must see it as “ours”, not as a partisan battle.

What Next?

I don’t know. I’m not a journalist. I’m just a nerd who blogs about communication.  What I do know is that

(a) Journalism is the conduit of public discourse, but many news stories are the polar opposite of Principled Negotiation.  They personalise the opposing sides, and emphasise positions rather than interests.  Which could be the reason why…

(b) …communication between politicians, interest groups, and the public is broken. Many people disengage, while the rest are stalemated into ever-more polarized views.

(c) In business, diplomacy and other fields, Principled Negotiation solves such stalemates and moves the discussion forward to productive outcomes.

(d) So surely it’s worth a try, to introduce the principles of successful negotiation into journalism.

There’s no need to change everything overnight. Why not start with a carefully-resourced small-scale experiment – just a handful of investigative stories, prepared by a multi-disciplinary team skilled in both journalism and Principled Negotiation.  If these stories move the discussion towards agreement, and if they re-engage the skeptical public, then we’re onto a winner.


This post was inspired by the launch of the Aotearoa New Zealand Foundation for Public Interest Journalism. I hope they make a difference.  By the way, I see that the Foundation will be presenting at an up-coming Journalism conference where, among other things, the need for change in the education of journalists will be discussed. Perhaps one change could be to introduce courses on Principled Negotiation.  If journalists are to facilitate and document the discussions of society, then surely they need sound understanding of what good discussion should look like.

2 comments on “Fixing the engine of public discussion

  • This might be your best post so far. Thanks Agilekiwi. I’m about to share this, especially with my journo and political friends.

    • Thanks Emma. The encouragement is much appreciated, especially on this topic because it’s not something I’ve written about before. If any of your friends want to discuss it more, either in these comments or in person, I’d love to. I think there are many questions and unknowns inherent in the idea… but hey, it’s an idea about dialogue – why not have some dialogue on how we might make it work!

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