The Benefits of Barter
Because I've been building a new business for the past two years and do not have a money tree in my back yard, I've learned to appreciate the value of barter.
In her ground-breaking legal memoir Alchemy of Race and Rights (Harvard Univ. Press 1992) Columbia Law School Professor Patricia Williams talks about lessons learned in a local "barter circle."
Once upon a time some neighbors of mine included me in their circle of barter. They were in the habit of exchanging eggs and driving lessons, hand-knit sweaters and computer programming, plumbing and calligraphy. I accepted the generosity of their inclusion with gratitude. At first, I felt that, as a lawyer, I had nothing to contribute. What I came to realize with time, however, was that my value to the group was not calculated by the physical items I brought to it. These people included me because they wanted me to be part of their circle, they valued my participation apart from the material things I could offer. So I gave of msyelf to them, and they gave me fruit cakes and dandelion wine and smoked salmon, and in their giving, their goods became provisions. Cradled in this community whose currency was a relational ethic, my stock in myself soared. My value depended on the glorious intangibility, the eloquent invisibility of my just being part of the collective; and in direct response I grew spacious and happy and gentle.
The Benefits of Bartering in Contemporary Commercial Transactions
Professor Williams' paen to barter doesn't sound merely cosy and homey, you say, it positively reeks of flower-child collectivism. What could Professor Williams' little barter circle possibly have to do with settling my $200 million unfair competition lawsuit?
A lot, actually. If you look past the smoked salmon and the dandelion wine, you'll find the phrase "currency [of] relational ethic." Williams is talking about the intangible value of relations as a means of exchange rather than (or in addition to) the numeric value of money.
We've become so used to valuing most everything in monetary terms, we tend to forget that money is a representation of value rather than value itself. When negotiating a commercial dispute, we all benefit from reminding ourselves that money is simply one medium of exchange -- a good one, but not the only one.
Money is so good at serving as an objective measure of value; a standard of deferred payment, a store of wealth, a criterion for measuring worth and a “universal means to whatever ends are available in the market” (Ingham, Geoffrey MONEY IS A SOCIAL RELATION (2002) 54 Review of Social Economy 507) we often fail to look elsewhere for resources.
Integrative or interest-based negotiations flourish whenever the parties are able to identify tangible goods or services as well as the intangible benefits (apologies, recognition, respect, etc.) that might be available to sweeten a monetary exchange.
Do contemporary business people use integrative bargaining techniques? Yes indeed they do. AT&T used interest-based negotiation tactics and bartering in its 1999 fight with Comcast Corporation for the acquisition of MediaOne Group. All parties were at impasse until AT&T offered to provide Comcast with surplus AT&T cable systems that would fill Comcast's critical need for additional subscribers -- 2 million to be exact. In exchange, Comcast withdrew its $48 billion bid for MediaOne, leaving AT&T as the only potential purchaser in the field.
Interest-based negotitions such as the AT&T-Comcast deal go beyond evaluating the strength of the parties' "positions" (or muscle) by engaging them in a mutual exploration and assessment of everyone's needs and resources -- a process that can create new buisness opportunities or relationships that increase the value of Business A without concomitantly decreasing the value of Business B.
Integrative bargaining is neither quilting bee nor barn raising. Like those frontier community activities, however, this type of negotiation starts with all community resources and know-how with the goal of increasing the well being of all stake-holders rather than assuring victory to one of them. On many occasions, this type of bargaining not only makes good business sense, it is the only negotiation technique that permits businesses engaged in conflict to make any sense at all.