How to split an orange

How to split an orange

Initial publication


  • May 19 2012

One day, a mother was in her kitchen with her two children and suggested that they cook together. They can use any ingredient in the kitchen and can choose their own recipes. She quickly realizes that both her children are fighting over access to the single orange available.

The mother, in all her wisdom, asks her children what they want the orange for. Her oldest explains that he needs the zest to make a cake for everyone, while her youngest explains that he wants to drink its juice.

Which children should she give the orange to? If she splits it in half, both children will be unhappy. If she chooses one over the other, one will be happy and the other most certainly will not. If she were to give the zest to her oldest and then let her youngest juice the orange, they will both be happy. And she will have avoided an unnecessary headache.

The traditional view of negotiation, that we must always ask for more than we really want since we expect to be negotiated down, is not necessarily the optimal method to use within an organization. Trying to find a solution that pleases all involved parties and in which no one is the perceived loser would allow an organization to avoid headaches too.

That is the question investigated by Walton et McKersie (1965) when they suggested a dichotomy that would separate distributive negotiation, where each party tries to win over the other, from integrative negotiation, which aims to find the best possible compromise through a collaborative process (Kerstern, 2001).

Integrative negotiation would allow every party to be satisfied with the results of a conflict management process. Both a process and a result, whose goal is to find a solution pleasing to all parties, integrative negotiations allows the perceived augmentation of available resources, rather than trying to divide what is seen at first.

Elements Integrative Negotiation Distributive Negotiation
Interdependance Win-Win Win-lose
Information Free circulation (all information is shared) Closed circulation (minimized given and maximized received information)
Understanding the other Sizeable efforts Me, Myself and I (no real interest in undertanding the other)
Objectives Similar (common good) Different
Solution In favor of all parties In favor of one party

Table 1 Comparison of distributive and integrative negotiation (Perrault, 2004)

Integrative negotiations’ success conditions may seem counter-intuitive when it comes to managing a conflict in our society:

  • Ability to trust the other parties, to be in a climate of honesty and integrity
  • Parties must all aim for the common good, not only their best personal interests
  • Parties must spot and negate attempts to use strategies that aim toward best personal interests rather than common good
  • Parties must create a climate of free circulation of all information
  • Parties must be active listeners and encourage others to do so
  • Parties must be creative when it comes to finding a solution

How can integrative negotiation be used to manage conflicts?

  1. By first identifying the core problem that underpins the situation. In our earlier story, two children have claims on a single orange.
  2. We must then try to understand what each party needs to get at the end of the process to be satisfied, in this case, one child wanted the zest and the other wanted the juice.
  3. Once the real needs are identified, it’s easier for both parties to innovate and to find solutions that will leave both parties satisfied, such as letting one take then zest and then giving the juice to the other.
  4. Once a satisfying solution is found, conflicts based on the perceived need to win will be lessened considerably. And the selection of a final solution will be able to proceed.

As with every utopic tool, we must consider the efficiency of a process before considering using it.

It is true that integrative negotiation will improve the general climate of a conflict by trying to find complementarity rather than disparity between the parties and will often yield a better solution. On the other hand, the process is long and can often seem counter-intuitive to parties not used to it.

The efficiency of integrative negotiation is often questioned. The process certainly is long, but that shouldn’t be taken to mean that distributive negotiation isn’t, with no guarantee of a mutually agreeable solution.

Furthermore, both parties must always be on the lookout for the use of distributive strategies that can undermine the whole integrative process. Which is not always easy since it’s the most common way to carry a negotiation.

Negotiation being an art rather than a science, it is very difficult to empirically measure the efficiency of a method relative to another. It is also very rare to see integrative negotiation used from start to finish. However, it is possible to link both types of negotiation, either by proceeding by steps or by using an interdependent approach to both models.

When facing organizational conflict, a simple example like the story of the mother trying to split an orange should always be kept in mind. It may be hard to forget our preconceptions about negotiation, but we must be able to do so if we want to have an organizational culture that looks for solutions instead of problems.


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