Skip to content

Fairness in Negotiations: 3 Myths That Hold You Back

By |March 04, 2024

“In life, you don’t get what’s fair, you get what you negotiate.” - Chris Voss

I used to think that aiming for fairness was a virtue during tense negotiations. Be reasonable, I told myself. Find the ethical path. This is a well-intentioned but naïve mindset. When someone plays the fairness card, warning bells go off in my head. I brace for manipulation disguised as a principle. Because at the end of the day, crying “unfair” is often just a pressure tactic meant to force concessions, not a high-minded appeal for justice. Here are three reasons why pursuing the F-word does more harm than good during prickly talks, and how to address them.

Fairness is vulnerable to perception and too subjective 

Fairness lies in the eye of the beholder. Your negotiating counterpart may argue their position is eminently fair while you see it as totally inequitable. Without an objective standard, cries of “unfair” simply reflect different vantage points, not clear ethical violations. Fairness claims appeal to the heart, not the mind.

“Fair” can be weaponized 

Your counterpart can use the concept of fair/fairness to force you to give in to their demands.  Afterall,  who would like to be thought of as being unfair? Don't be deceived - calls for fairness often cloak naked self-interest. By saying "I'm only asking for what's fair," your counterpart paints their position as virtuous. This forces you to defend yourself against allegations of unfairness. It's a classic manipulation meant to play on your emotions and self-image, all while extracting more concessions.

Discussions of fairness stir up strong emotions - anger at perceived injustice, and indignation over being wronged. This clouds rational thought with resentment or righteousness. Now negotiations devolve into emotional confrontation rather than collaborative problem-solving. Insisting on fairness poisons the well.   

With compromise,  someone always loses. 

“Fair” is relative—if someone is using that word, particularly early in the interaction, watch out. They have a specific idea of what “fair” looks like, which will benefit them. If you disagree with them at any point, the specter of unfairness is hanging over your head.  

Splitting the difference appears equitable but produces suboptimal results. Even compromises have winners and losers. When counterparts argue for "fairness," recognize it's a loaded term wielded for advantage. True collaboration usually beats forced compromise.

“If you expect the world to be fair with you because you are fair, you’re fooling yourself.  That’s like expecting the lion not to eat you because you didn’t eat the lion.” (author unknown)


How do you strategically get ahead of “fair”?

Since accusations of unfairness are so common in tense talks, get out in front of the problem. Don't just hope your counterpart avoids loaded fairness rhetoric - that's wishful thinking, not sound strategy. Instead, address it proactively:

"If at any point you feel I'm being unfair, please stop me. We can rewind the conversation to where the unfairness began and pick it up from there."

Taking this approach clears the air for open communication, not manipulation. And it earns you respect - by showing you aim for mutual understanding, not just advantage. You demonstrate good faith and Tactical Empathy™ which builds trust and creative problem-solving. The manipulative use of "fairness" poisons negotiations - so defuse its power by discussing it transparently.

“Fairness doesn’t mean everyone gets the same.  Fairness means everyone gets what they need.”  Rick Riordan, author