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Finding Fair Criteria


Disciplines > Negotiation > Activities > Finding Fair Criteria

What makes things fair | Ways to find fair criteria | See also


A key part of reaching an agreeable outcome is to ensure that both parties conclude that the result is fair, and a good way to establish this is to identify decision criteria that are clearly fair.

When there is any dispute, this is usually about decisions that appear unfair. Going back to the criteria used and finding new and objective criteria is often an effective way forward.

What makes things fair

Although fairness is something that each person may define, there are sufficient social rules around the subject that fairness can usually be agreed.


The problem with one person saying what is fair in a negotiation is that they have a stake in the outcome. This means that any single person having the final say about something that affects both parties may be viewed by the other person as unfair.

The best way to find fairness is thus outside of the individuals in the negotiation, in a person or publication that is trusted by both parties.


When both people have an equal say in the process, then each person cannot claim that the other person is grabbing control.

An important aspect of equality in negotiation is the right to say no. Each person has the right to refuse any offer and to leave the table at any time.

Fairness also comes through mutual respect. If you accept the other person then they are more likely to accept you. Acceptance and respect does not mean you have to agree with them -- the key is respect them as a human, with equal rights to all others.

Ways to find fair criteria

Fair criteria for making decisions are not always easy to identify. Here are several categories in which they may be found.

Laws, regulations and standards

Where there are regulations set by others, this provides a framework that you can use to show what is acceptable or not. Such regulations may include:

  • National legislation, such as employment law.
  • Company regulations, such as for handling and storage of materials.
  • Company policies, such as for employee equality.
  • Industry standards, such as ISO9000.

Social norms

As well as formal and documented criteria there are also many socially accepted rules for what it fair.

Note that social rules may vary significantly across cultures, even within the same country, company or even family. For example a street gang member has a different view of violence to a parent. Negotiation in different countries can vary in norm, for example in the use of insults and deception.

Where cultures are different, a discussion of fair play may be useful. Where they have less polite norms, you should first be aware of these and may also decide to play the game by their rules.

Available publications

There are a lot of useful articles in magazines and journals on everything from the performance of cars to romantic affairs. These may be used as criteria when you are discussing what is fair, what is normal and what is totally unacceptable.

Some publications have a major purpose in providing fairness, for example in the price guides that you get for everything from cars to cameras to antiques.

It can be very helpful in negotiations to have first read the publication beforehand, and then have it with you, so you can pull it out and set the standard for fair criteria.

Opinions of respected others

Other people can be used in a number of different roles. Ury (2000) describes ten different roles that others can take, including mediation, arbitration and others. They key is that when you do not find it easy to accept or trust what the other person might say or do, then engaging someone else who you both trust can be an effective alternative.

This third party is effectively a 'trust broker' who can do anything from giving expert opinion on goods being bought or sold, to acting as a go-between when relationships break down but the negotiation must continue. In many of these situations they may be used to define or facilitate agreement for fair criteria.

See also

The Need for Fairness, Fair exchange, Decision Criteria


William Ury, The Third Side, Penguin Books, NY, 2000


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