Proven, Professional Assistance in Mediation Matters

Negotiation News: Volume 5, Issue 4

Welcome back to Judge Mediation Negotiation News! I hope everyone enjoyed a good summer, and are enjoying the moderately cooler days of autumn, at least in some places . . .

In this issue, I’m providing a few words on the issue of “saving face” during negotiations. It’s tremendously important, as it allows each party, especially in contentious negotiations, to achieve resolution while sustaining a sense that the other side has respected their position and has respected them.

Face:  How to Maintain It and how to Save It

“He’s out to screw me over, and I’m not going to sit here and take it!”

“That’s an insult! Did all those years together mean nothing?”

Sound familiar?

In contentious negotiations, many of us have heard, or even said, phrases just like this. Generally, angry remarks like these arise from a feeling that one’s worth and value have been demeaned. Such feelings can be provoked by “insult” offers and demands, and in business cases where the parties have had previous dealings, they can also arise in response to outrageous or punitive communications that appear designed to belittle an opposing party.

  • So what is “face”?

Put simply, “face” signifies a person’s sense of self respect, which can be affected by an opposing party’s threats, offers, or other communications. In the case of international relations, “face” may also involve a national sense of honor or pride. (See Stella Ting-Toomey, A Face Negotiation Perspective Communicating for Peace, Sage 1990)

  • Why is it important to save face?

The concept of saving face goes back to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. According to Sun Tzu, the true art of war is not to fight. But when war is fought, one’s opponent must be permitted to surrender with dignity and without being humiliated. For example, during the Cuban missile crisis, once Kennedy and Khruschev decided that neither wanted to push the other to nuclear war, they spent most of their time trying to determine how each country could maintain its national honor and obtain a resolution without feeling humiliated. Conversely, when the photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were released, they sent shock waves across the world and greatly contributed to years of violence and discord.

Among individuals in mediation, the same concepts apply.

  • How does one avoid making an opponent lose face?

Fisher, Ury and Patton in “Getting to Yes” suggested seven strategies in handling perception problems in negotiation. Here are a few:

  1. Both sides must buy into the process of negotiation and compromise. This can take as many forms as there are people who participate in mediation and mediators. It’s important for the mediator to communicate potentially combustible information to opposing parties in the manner that is least likely to derail negotiation, but it’s also important for counsel and parties not to simply communicate numbers or information designed to anger the other side. Thus, think about not only what is being communicated, but how it is likely to be received.
  2. Suspicions can be deadly and should be avoided. Trying to deduce an opponent’s intentions in a negotiation, whether based on his or her past conduct or one’s own deductions, is counterproductive and can lead to communicating information designed to anger the other side.
  3. Think outside the box. Think about your opponent’s negative misconceptions about you and act in a way that is inconsistent with those misconceptions.
  • What happens if “face” becomes an issue?

Ting-Toomey suggests that there are two aspects of “face” in negotiation: 1) where one’s “face” is threatened, and 2) where one’s “face” must be honored.

Face-honoring is straightforward: each side communicates in a manner that shows mutual respect, whether through words or through offers and demands, and the exchange is equitable. Quite simply, there is a fair negotiation.

Saving face is more delicate, especially when there are cultural considerations. When one side or the other feels as though their sense of self respect is threatened, it is important to have face-honoring communications that will restore that party’s sense of well-being.

Issues of “face”, ego, pride, etc. can become distracting and then detrimental to resolving disputes. While these issues certainly can’t be ignored or given short shrift, they may take some time to work through and manage so that negotiations can stay on course.

“Saving face” may be less of a concern in litigation between members of “low context” cultures, such as the United States. As Sarah Rosenberg stated in her article entitled Face in “Low Context” Cultures, communication in those cultures can be more direct, as one’s obligations are defined by the terms of a contract or by the earned status of an individual.

In “high context” cultures, such as those of Asia and certain countries in the Middle East, decorum and social hierarchy are crucially important, and direct confrontation is to be avoided in order to maintain harmony. Cultural norms in negotiation vary greatly, so it is of paramount importance to keep culture in mind.

The takeaway: be mindful of the fine line between aggressive negotiation and simply angering the other side.  Look at things not only from the perspective of what is being sent, but from the perspective of what is being received. Try to be mindful that the opposing party may feel insulted or disrespected, as such feelings can be distracting, can cause the negotiations to bog down, or can even derail negotiations altogether. Though one’s opponent’s reactions are predominantly outside of a party’s control, if the opposing party does feel disrespected, consider arming the mediator with information that the mediator can use to assuage your opponent’s feelings and get negotiations back on track.

Please feel free to call me at 818-616-8500 or 818-616-8500, or email me should you have any questions or comments.

  • Enhanced Archives

Don’t forget that if you missed past issues or want to review a topic that I covered in the past, the Negotiation News page contains a complete index to the archives of Negotiation News.

  • Charity

As always, when booking your mediation, please direct me to the website of your charity and I will donate part of the fees in your name.

All the best, and I look forward to working with you soon!


Sean E. Judge is a mediator with offices in Woodland Hills, CA. In his 21 years as a litigator, he has represented corporate and institutional clients, and individual litigants and small businesses, both as Plaintiffs and Defendants. He can be reached via telephone at 818-616-8500, at or via email at .