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Tit-for-Tat as Discursive Synchronization

TFT might promote conversational synchronization by mirroring cooperative or competitive moves. Gergen, McNamee, and Barrett (2001) found that conversational and physical synchronization bridged differences between antagonists. Interactive synchronization created a sense of coherence, structure, and shared social norms (Shotter, 1993) along with interpersonal harmony and togetherness (Gergen, Gergen, & Barrett, 2004; Gergen et al., 2001). For Stacey (2001), rules and procedures governing conversational turn-taking and turn-making enhanced interpersonal synchronization. Discursive rules and procedures determined who could talk and when, and what utterances were contributory or unproductive diversions (Stacey, 2001). Instead of framing TFT as set of strategic moves to impose boundaries around opponent reactions, the TFT paradigm might direct and guide patterns of discourse leading to cooperative synchronization.

In the dance of a TFT driven negotiation, a sense of mutual commonality fostered by the shared norms of TFT may reframe perceptions of participant intent, promote open communication, and the exploration of perceived misunderstandings. Instead of immediate reciprocation, the unexpected following of cooperation with non-cooperation might prompt TFT-guided participants to engage in procedural and interpretative discussions. A shared understanding of the norm of reciprocity fostered by TFT might shift the focus of discussions away from contentious issues and toward discovery of each participant's interpretation and perception of previous moves. Consistent with Senge (1994), habituated defensive routines and adversarial perceptions diminish when participants "become observers of their own thinking" (p.242).

Cunliffe (2001) called managers practical authors "in which managers and other organizational participants seek and respond to the conversational moments, the 'once-occurring events of Being' in which they find themselves actively engaged" (p. 352). Practical authors transform the tenor of interpersonal conversations by altering existing rules, procedures and patterns governing interaction (Shotter, 1993). Through the explicit and public application of TFT, managers might reframe conversational patterns away from discord and incongruence toward shared patterns founded on common expectations, shared norms, and coherent reactions. Though managers can initiate change by altering patterns of interaction, ultimate outcomes remained unknowable (Streatfield, 2001). Importation of TFT into ongoing negotiations may help transform habituated adversarial forms of discourse into synchronized patterns of gesture-response reciprocation, but, as Streatfield noted, the form and content of the actual discourse would remain unpredictable.


Laboratory research on Tit-for-Tat (TFT) provided compelling evidence of the effectiveness of TFT in promoting cooperative behaviors in mixed-motive social dilemmas. When applied to actual negotiations, the TFT strategy might be more beneficial as a heuristic device with which to interpret the actions of opponents, define norms, and promote discursive synchronization. For Richards (2001), TFT imposed a sense of order, equity, and coherence onto the complex, ambiguous, and dynamic nature of negotiation. For managers seeking to improve the dynamics of contentious negotiations, the effective communication of intent and application of TFT might promote convergence around a shared pattern of interaction leading to increased coordination, cooperation, and shared expectations.

Henry E. Peelle III is CEO of The Peelle Company; a small family owned manufacturing organization. Dr. Peelle holds a BS in Mechanical Engineer from Bucknell University, an MBA from UNC-Charlotte, and a Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership from the University of Phoenix. Address correspondence to: Henry E. Peelle III; 122 Rockabill Lane; Mooresville, NC 28117. Email:


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February 2006