Rational negotiations have feelings too

A dispute between TransLink—the region’s public transit authority—and some post-secondary students made the cover of the Vancouver Sun on Monday last week. Although the students rightfully claim to be unfairly treated, negotiation and decision analysis shows that they made irrational choices in the past. On the other hand, TransLink could have handled more effectively the emotions involved in these negotiations.


A dispute between TransLink—the public transit authority in Vancouver, BC—and some post-secondary students made the cover of the Vancouver Sun on Monday last week. Although the students rightfully claim to be unfairly treated, negotiation and decision analysis shows that they made irrational choices in the past. On the other hand, TransLink could have handled more effectively the emotions involved in these negotiations.

A couple of weeks ago, a group of students of small post-secondary schools in Vancouver, BC, filed a complaint with the Office of the B.C. Ombudsman, protesting that TransLink’s price policy for students is unfair and discriminatory. Indeed, students enrolled in larger post-secondary institutions (like UBC) use the system for a special monthly fee between $26.65 and $38;  at the same time, students of smaller schools (like the Vancouver Community College) have to pay regular fares ranging from $73 to $136 a month! [1,2,3]

This dispute, which is the result of 8 years of unsuccessful negotiations, could have had a different ending, if the parties had received some negotiation advise. Granted, my judgement is made after the events and without first hand knowledge of the facts or the real interests of the parties. From now on, I will assume that the facts presented in the Vancouver Sun [1], the Westender.com [2] and the Canadian Federation of Students are “all the facts”.

My guess is that both parties did what most people do: they addressed “objective”, “reasonable” issues like fairness and revenue, while implicitly banning emotions from the negotiation table. Unfortunately, this conflict also about emotional concerns, because one of the parties feel discriminated. Justified or not, this feeling is likely to produce outrage and indignation.

With their emotional concerns out of the negotiation table, the pursuit of justice through equal fares became the students’ vehicle for emotional reparation. Ironically, this led some student councils to turn down offers of around $35, arguing that they were not the same as the price for UBC—one of the largest institutions in the city. In other words, they chose to keep paying a regular monthly fee between $73 and $136 instead of $35  a month! Not only was this decision mathematically irrational, it also was strategically unsound.

First, they could have accepted the $35 offer and wait for the next negotiation, which takes place every three years. The extra money in their pockets would have put a little more food in the students’ fridges, as one of them phrased it [1]. In addition, they could have used the three years to continue lobbying, learning more about the system, and establishing connections with key TransLink employees. Accepting that offer was a partial win, not a defeat.

Second, they could have used the $35 fee as the baseline price in the next negotiation. This approach takes advantage of two well documented psychological phenomena:

  • People are more likely to agree to a larger request when they have already agreed to a smaller one [4]
  • Previous agreements are a likely to become reference points in later negotiations [5]

I understand the rush to eliminate those unpleasant feelings, but not all conflicts can be solved with a single agreement. Patience usually holds better rewards than immediate gratification.

Fourth, they could have evaluated TransLink’s offer in terms of how it satisfies the students’ interests, not in terms of how it compares to the fares for larger schools. As the roman orator Seneca once put it “people are miserable only by comparison”. In this case, the comparison only serves to increase their feeling discriminated and the urge to “get even”.

Finally, and more importantly, students could have prioritized their interests and asked themselves what is more important? The extra money in the pockets or the extra dollars they pay compared to the students of larger schools?

A message for TransLink: How to deal with the counterpart’s emotions
First, keep emotions on the negotiation table. Make sure people feel comfortable revealing them, so they can be dealt with. Banning emotions from the table is futile and counterproductive, because they won’t go away and will become hidden interests that interfere with the process. The rational way to deal with emotions is to treat them as legitimate concerns.

Second, use criteria that can be easily communicated. When companies grant a special price to a client on the basis of unique characteristics they must make sure the special agreement can be easily justified to other clients. Otherwise, the special conditions can become suspect and a reason to demand the same treatment. In companies like TransLink, coming up with such criteria is not an easy task; it usually takes more than one expert and several hours of number crunching. As my mentors would put it, under those circumstances, it is unrealistic to expect that a twenty minute presentation will effectively explain a solution that took literally weeks to complete.

Finally and more importantly, bring the attention to the interests. In the transit dispute, the parties became so worried about the monthly fare and the price for other schools that they neglected the actual problem: how can we help students spend less money in transit while maintaining the cost efficiency of TransLink?

To me, this was the essence of the conflict.

(1) Hansen, D. (2009). TransLink prices unfair, students say. In The Vancouver Sun. Retrieved: April 23, 2009, from vancouversun.com website http://www.vancouversun.com/News/TransLink%2Bprices%2Bunfair%2Bstudents/1490733/story.html

(2) Wong, J. (2009). Students demand fair transit pricing. In Westender.com. Retreived: April 23, 2009, from westender.com website http://www.westender.com/articles/entry/students-demand-fair-transit-pricing/news-and-views/

(3) Canadian Federation of Students. (2009). Students call on to end U-Pass discrimination. Retrieved: April 23, 2009, from cfs-fcee.ca website in http://www.cfs-fcee.ca/html/english/media/mediapage.php?release_id=979

(4) Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer Effect. New York: Random House Inc.

(5) Bazerman, M. (1998). Judgment in managerial decision making. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

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