Nation & World

Buddhism and the art of negotiation

5 min read

Mindfulness, ‘unattachment’ — and getting what you want

Would the Buddha be an effective arbiter in a complicated and contentious land trust dispute or a messy divorce? For many experts, the answer is a resounding yes.

While it’s impossible to actually have the ancient spiritual leader himself present in the room on such occasions, several Buddhist scholars, practitioners, and professional mediators at a panel last week (Nov. 7) said they use his practices and principles often to help facilitate interpersonal dialogue and effective negotiation.

Ran Kuttner, visiting scholar at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School (HLS), and Michael Wheeler LL.M. ’74, MBA Class of 1952 Professor of Management Practice at the Harvard Business School and co-director of HLS’s Dispute Resolution Program, convened the group at HLS’s Pound Hall. It included Zen master (Roshi) Bernie Glassman, lecturer on Buddhist studies at Harvard Divinity School and founder of the Zen Peacemakers; Gregory Kramer, co-founder of the Metta Foundation and teacher of Vipassana and Metta meditation; Janet Surrey, a founding scholar of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at Wellesley College.

Glassman used the example of the principle in the Zen tradition of Buddhism referred to as the “don’t know mind,” or a sense of a complete “unattachment” to any knowledge or preconceptions, as an important tool in dialogue. He stressed that the concept is not a letting go of ideas but of one’s attachment to them. The notion, he said, leads to an open-minded approach that lends itself well to negotiation.

“I come to a new situation without any preconceived notion of how I am going to take care of it,” he said. “I come totally open.”

Many might consider the concept of meditation a solitary pursuit. A foundational element of Buddhism, meditation can help one achieve mindfulness, a sense of awareness of the present moment. But Surrey, who has practiced Buddhism for years, said she uses that technique in her relational psychotherapy practice to help develop a better connection with her patients. She referred to it as a type of co-meditation, which helps all involved in the dialogue stay connected to themselves, the other person in the room, and the flow of the dialogue.

“In this culture we are particularly caught in a very self-centered way of being, thinking … and the ability to be connected to ourselves, each other, and in community is very, very impaired.”

By being aware of her own sensations, the experiences being relayed by the patient and the shifting dynamic of the connection between herself and the patient, together, Surrey said, she and the patient join in a shared mindfulness. This sense of “co-meditation,” said Surrey, is a way of being in a dialogue that allows participants to tolerate disconnections and establish a way of thinking that lets things emerge rather than a type of “reaching for understanding or conclusions.”

Ultimately, she said, the process is about being able “to experience the suffering together enough to be able to move; it all comes down to facing into suffering, can we be there together and see what happens.”

An open-minded approach, like the one espoused by Glassman, is critical in negotiation, agreed Kramer.

“The meditative moment, the moment of transformation is meeting experience as it is — not expecting it to be some perfect other way — and that’s no different than coming into a negotiation and meeting it as it is, or meeting a client, if you’re an attorney, as he or she is,” he said.

In addition, he said, when everyone is actively engaged in a dialogue, the mutual effort can help sustain and perpetuate itself.

“You have this huge asset that helps you meet the huge challenge which is the other person is also endeavoring to be present,” he said, “so we awaken each other if we allow that dynamic to unfold. Your waking up helps me wake up.”

To bring Buddhism further into the concept of everyday practice, the second half of the panel included professional mediators who ascribe to Buddhist theories to help them with their work.

David Hoffman J.D. ’84, founder of The Boston Law Collaborative where he works as a mediator, arbiter, and attorney, called the principles “practical stuff” that has real and effective applications. While he said he didn’t pretend to be a leading scholar or practitioner of Buddhism, Hoffman said he adheres closely to the mantra of nonjudgmental awareness that comes out of the teachings of Buddhism in his work.

“How we lead in helping [clients] find their own source of wisdom is challenging. … We should embrace and do it with a sense of total engagement and courting the capacity for surprise,” he said.

Hoffman maintained that by also being fully aware and in the moment as a mediator, great things can happen.

He recounted a particularly controversial family property dispute that he helped mediate in part by simply talking about his summer vacations on a similar piece of land. He told his clients, who felt they were being cheated on the price, how much his own summer vacation spot meant to him and his family and that the money wouldn’t be a sticking point if it were ever for sale because of its sheer emotional importance. In the end the dispute was resolved amicably.

“We have to take risks” Hoffman said, “that sometimes involve sharing of ourselves.”