September 1999


By Hanan M. Isaacs

In my work as a trainer, coach, and ADR process advocate, I have listened to CPAs describe the importance of conflict resolution in their practices and the business world generally. I teach people that positive and negative conflicts are highly contextual. Most of us would agree to fight certain difficult battles but avoid others at all costs. We might not like to think of ourselves as bullies, but would be proud to defend loved ones and friends from unfair attack.

Conflict is a naturally occurring phenomenon, neither good nor bad. The negotiator's goal is not to eliminate conflict, but rather to manage it. I see long-term opportunities for CPAs as process advocates and neutrals. CPAs need to be leading players in dispute resolution, whether as outside consultants to individuals and businesses or as inside consultants. CPAs are uniquely suited to the problem-solving model and should seek to maximize their options in this increasingly popular and lucrative area.

In my workshops, including a training program offered through the New Jersey Society of CPAs, I promise professionals a transformational experience. They will learn to see themselves and their world differently. They will become more tolerant of conflict, more willing to intervene, and more successful in achieving measurably superior outcomes, both for themselves and their clients.

The immediate results of enhanced conflict resolution skills are fewer adversarial conflicts, an improved emotional climate, less supervision required of subordinates, more autonomy granted to peers and subordinates, measurable improvement in work results (productivity, on-time delivery, customer satisfaction), less absenteeism, fewer medical and stress-related claims, and less propensity for physical violence.

The tools required to do this work successfully are teachable and transferrable:

* Listening to feedback

* Reframing and clarifying

* Empathy and openness

* Coachability

* Responsiveness and responsibility

* Constructive engagement and relationship building

* Inventing without deciding

* Emphasis on humanity and forgiveness

* Reduction in blaming and sabotaging behaviors.

The single best source for CPA negotiators is still Fisher and Ury's Getting to Yes, available in paperback at most bookstores and online. This slim volume teaches people how to reach resolution by principled negotiation rather than by using hard or soft tactics. It emphasizes interest-based bargaining and use of market-based standards instead of positional bargaining, which too often passes for good negotiating and leads to splitting the proverbial baby in two.

We also explore integrative barbargaining: Can the pie be enhanced? Are there any creative solutions that might leave both sides better off?

Good negotiators, like good generals and trial lawyers, know that the most important work occurs long before meeting the adversary. The strongest negotiator in the deal is the one who needs the item the least. I ask people to consider how they might improve their negotiating strength, irrespective of the other side's motives, moves, or presence. I have come to call this strategy "bullet proof" negotiating.

In my workshops, I also go through an exercise demonstrating the differences between third-party interventions by arbitrators and mediators. I then show participants graphically how these concepts apply to their world by using examples from the audience. People move quickly from a didactic model to hands-on roleplaying and critical thinking. Audience and trainer feedback is process-based rather than solution-based. Showing how to get to "yes" is generally more useful than a well-intentioned "Why don't you just try this?" approach.

Finally, I ask people to explore the relevance of relationship issues to their negotiating. Can we negotiate effectively with bitter enemies? Can we get past our fears about negotiating with unscrupulous or obnoxious people? How do we stay on track, no matter what happens in the negotiation? The best approach is what Roger Fisher coined "unconditionally constructive" behavior. If we have pledged ourselves to the high road, it doesn't matter if the other side takes the low. We can protect our interests and also keep open to the possibility of constructive engagement. It is even possible to litigate constructively, by letting the other party know we are always open to reason.

As CPAs gain critical negotiation skills, much more becomes possible: practice building based on enhanced client relationships, participation in dispute-prevention and mitigation, more sophisticated consulting and coaching roles, dispute resolution systems design, service as forensic experts in private or court-connected neutral processes, and service as arbitration or mediation neutrals. CPA societies are creating dispute resolution panels for inter- or intra-firm disputes as well as for CPA-client conflict solving. CPAs generate favorable publicity, as advocates of problem-solving and conflict resolution. Protecting relationships, preventing waste and mismanagement, and getting people back to work are only three positive outcomes of using critical negotiation skills. Stress reduction and burnout mitigation are other key professional advantages.

The AICPA and various state societies have begun actively exploring the interdisciplinary and multi-faceted world of dispute resolution. As the profession travels this worthy path, CPAs are well advised to develop and enhance their negotiation and conflict resolution skills. *

Hanan M. Isaacs is a mediator, arbitrator, and trial lawyer with offices in Princeton, New Jersey. He has served as a commercial and personal injury arbitrator for the American Arbitration Association's New Jersey Regional Office. He serves as president-elect of the New Jersey Association of Professional Mediators and chair of its Political Action Committee.

Philip Zimmerman, CPA
Mediator and Arbitrator

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