Turn, Turn, Turn

“Taking turns” is possibly the first non-screaming negotiation tool we learn in our lives, and it remains an incredibly powerful tool for diplomacy no matter how old you get.

Humans have a strong instinctual desire for fairness – at least as it relates to themselves. My suspicion is that because humans are so bad at evaluating whether we’re actually getting a “good” deal (or even getting what we want at all), we often default to the far more easily-measured “fair deal.” If we’re getting an even split with someone, we reason, then we can’t be getting too screwed over, right?

This means that very early in life (earlier for some than for others, of course) we learn that a great way to settle an argument or negotiate an impasse is to offer to “take turns.” Like all techniques, it’s not 100% flawless. But a shocking number of adult conflicts can be resolved with some variation of the offer.

Maybe it’s because we want fairness – or maybe it’s just because we want to be treated fairly, which isn’t the same thing. If the other person offers a compromise, we feel less attacked and therefore less defensive. We’re more likely to reason our way out.

And it’s a calming influence. Have six people trying to talk over each other in a meeting? Be quick to offer: “Okay, you go ahead first, then I’ll go.” Establish a turn order and give up the first slot. 90% of the time people just want to know that other people are acknowledging their contributions. They’ll talk for less time in their allotted turn than they would have spent just shouting for attention. Then, you can get across the information you want.

Outsiders notice it, too. Our inner kindergartner sees someone else offering and respecting turns and we immediately raise our opinion of that person. The instinct for fair treatment never really goes away.

As I said above, nothing is flawless. Sometimes you need to grab the initiative and sometimes you need to break away from an orderly structure. But more than an organizational tool, the concept of “taking turns” will always remain an outstanding diplomatic tool. Just because it’s old, don’t forget how tried and true it can be.

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