If you like negotiation -- doing it, helping others do it, teaching it, studying it, thinking about it – I hope you paid close attention to the recent beltway debt deal and didn’t avert your eyes. If you watched, you might, depending on your political predilections, have come away concluding:
- It was our political system at its worst: an incapable, dysfunctional, inside-the-beltway bubble of bickering, election posturing and collective do-nothing-ism.
- It was our system of government at its very best: a transparent majoritarian democracy that is slow, messy and overly adversarial but gets the job done.
- It was an extremist Tea Party minority holding everyone else hostage.
- It was a brave new Tea Party triumph bringing its stated principles to bear on politics as usual.
- It was a weak Obama; an idealistic Obama; a pragmatic Obama; or an Obama the one-termer.
In politics as in art, it is all in the eye of the beholder. A. B. Guthrie, a fine but lesser known Western writer, put it this way: “Tastes got a right to differ.”
Here’s another take.
The back-and-forth inside and between the House, the Senate and the Executive over the debt ceiling, revenue enhancers, and entitlement cuts was unusual in that all manner of key negotiation concepts were on open display in the 24-7-365 news cycle. Personally, I was mesmerized and watched repeatedly, instantly and incessantly. In the nostalgic circumstances of just a few years ago, political opponents might have prosecuted their cases before the public and on the floors of the Congress, and then gone behind closed door to do their private deal making. They would have bartered out their final differences and out would have popped a legislative hot dog, which we should remember is just one particular (and very American) sub-species of a much larger phylum of that includes salamis, chorizos, kielbasas, and bratwursts.
Not this time. For once we got to see the sausage making up close and all the things we talk to law and MBA students about. We watched the raw dynamics of framing, anchoring, and the setting of target and reservation prices. We got a peep at the complicated rationales people put forward to prop up their demands and offers and saw all of the bluffs, feints, and lies pols attached to them. We saw cognitive bias, in-team and cross-team bargaining, hyperbolic discounting, competitive irrationality, risk taking, risk resistance, risk aversion, reactive devaluation, the creation and disappearance of potential trade zones, and a lot of the vicious “into the abyss” dynamics we sometimes associate with “Prisoner’s Dilemma” games.
If you are a junky for the theory and practice of negotiation, as I am, this was more than a great spectacle. It was a clinical experience, especially for negotiation teachers. Negotiation teachers should have especially found this of value as a way of testing many of their ideas about bargaining (See Note 1). But something else was at play in watching our divided American public’s reaction as well: more evidence that Americans actually to negotiate, or are at least schizophrenic about it.
Here is the hypothesis.
At its most basic, negotiation is all about trades. I’ll do this for you if you’ll do that for me; I’ll give you X if you’ll give me Y. There is discussion, of course. There may be various sorts of dog-sniffing meetings, many cups of coffee or tea, formal or informal conferences, meetings at toilet breaks, and exchanges of more friendly or less friendly letters. But at the end of the day it is all about some form of intended commerce and exchange. I periodically have to remind myself that in Spanish, the word for business is negocios. To my mind, this is a sensible conflation for many negotiating situations.
In “American,” the language we choose reveals aspects of this bi-polar confusion. For the more Elysian among us, negotiation is optimistically (and on its best day) about “reasoned discussion,” “diplomacy,” “dialogue,” “deliberation,” “cooperation,” “problem solving,” and (of course) ”mediation.” If you are a more down-and-dirty type from the fish market, negotiation is “haggling,” “dickering,” “quibbling,” “wrangling,” and “compromising.”
It’s all Yin and Yang, of course, two sides of a paradoxical coin but freighted with cultural nuances and marbled with interesting meanings. When I lived in India back in the day, everyone haggled for everything. Coming from a more antiseptic culture where everything is shrink wrapped and priced to go, I had to learn to haggle hard. I did. With a few twists and turns, buying a few potatoes in the bazar, dealing with passports and visas, managing an irritable co-worker, or securing a suitable spouse for a son or daughter all seemed to have a similar template. Drink tea. Establish a relationship (or at least a connection). Demand high. Offer low. Bargain hard. Bring it to a friendly or unfriendly conclusion, and then complain endlessly about what a thief or cheat the other side was.
Without indulging in too much stereotyping, Indians, Chinese, Arabs and many others seem to like negotiation in ways Americans may not. When interviewed by a reporter in London and asked why he had turned to piracy, for example, Somali brigand Abdirizak Elmi Abdullah put it this way: “Negotiation is our religion.” (See Note 3) I cannot imagine most Americans saying this with the possible exception of Donald Trump and his acolytes (See Note 4). Abdullah’s comment struck me as first and foremost, some kind of cultural fundament that is imputed into many other cultures and second, some hazy dividing line between us and them.
In ways that aren’t fully apparent, and no matter when our people came to the U.S., we Americans who are at least first generational are all inheritors of the sterner Puritan and Pilgrim thinking cemented here and there in the Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and Bill of Rights. These qualities, we think, give us a certain moral fiber, a not invaluable commodity in a world of perpetually shifting and perpetually bartered arrangements.
On the other hand, maybe we are missing something. We have high-minded views about things but we also know we have to stoop down and haggle like rug merchants when it comes to certain “stuff” - houses, cars, washing machines, vacation rentals, legal fees. When it gets to other matters – religion, politics, and the like – we draw lines. Our principles are not fungible.
This schizophrenia is a theme that my curmudgeonly and loquacious friend Robert Benjamin and I have been discussing for years, inflicting our odd speculations on other people through a steady trickle of articles, book chapters, and conference workshops, then ultimately, when everyone else had wisely fled the room, just entertaining each other over cigars and brandy (See Note 5). Here, in a nutshell, is the thesis and some of what I would call “streaks” that seem to run through many of us and that we saw on vivid parade during the hot dog making that just went on.
Streak #1 - Negotiation is evil. Negotiation is what the snake did in the Garden of Eden. The snake bargains away with Eve and finally gives her some forbidden fruit in exchange for some of the same wisdom and understandings as god might have. Unquestionably in the Judeo-Christian traditions, negotiation has a certain sniff of immorality. Satan is a perennial “negotiator” for human souls. He shows up over and over again in our weakest moments in Faust, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and other morality plays old and new (See Note 6).
Streak #2 - Negotiation is trickery. People of integrity (“gentlemen and ladies” as the Victorians called them) don’t fool each other. Negotiation isn’t a game like poker or whist. We might accept them in parlor or table games but we don’t like trickery, manipulation, betrayals or double-crosses in real matters. These are signs of bad breeding.
Streak #3 - Negotiation is unmanly. Real men (and women) don’t negotiate. We don’t compromise, appease, or avoid. We stand up to bullies, confront threats, speak truth to power, and carry forward with the comfort that we will eventually make right that which is wrong, if not in this world, then in the next. Our cinematic archetypes here are Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson and of course John Wayne: fighter pilot, Indian-killer, bulldozer driver and “the man who shot Liberty Valence.”
Streak #4 – Negotiation is “Old World”. Jews, Poles, Russians, Italians, Hungarians, Slovaks, and other lower class foreigners dicker for nickels and dimes with gusto. For real Americans, it’s unseemly.
Streak #5 – Negotiation is dirty and tacky. Think of Tom Cruise in Jerry McGuire who finally gets disgusted with himself when he is confronted early in the movie by the son of a terribly injured football player at the hospital. Or the smarmy Bill Murray in Ghostbusters who is always selling, persuading, wheedling and sometimes swindling. Negotiation of this sort offends our sensibilities (unless of course you are doing this yourself for your own imagined noble ends which in your own mind justify the means).
Streak $6 – Negotiation is inefficient. We are a logical, reasoning, and knowledgeable people and expert at finding rational-choice outcomes. This is part of the positivist thinking underlying the Fisher and Ury school which suggests a neater and more comfortable paradigm. There is, in effect, a “Pareto efficient” deal” to be done and we can get to it if we separate people from their problems.
Streak #7 – Negotiation is for the weak. The intellectual wing of the Neo-Conservative movement in American politics (George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and others from certain think tanks) spent endless amounts of time studying the The Melian Dialogue (See Note 6). For many the discovered lessons are (a) might makes right; (b) the strong will always do what is in their power to do; (c) the weak must submit; and (d) (transposed into American foreign policy) if you are not with us, you are against us. In other words, negotiation is for losers.
These streaks are not wholly unique to us but we Americans put our own fairly righteous cultural stamp on them. The proverbs and admonitions we rely on are little instruction packets, cultural “memes,” that tell us a lot about ourselves. “Actions speak louder than words, but words of actions speak proudly.” ”Always demand what you are due.” “Money talks and bullshit walks.” “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” “Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.”
The debt crisis gave us a wonderful peephole through the usual Washington DC fence of political spin and into the backside of the construction lot where sometimes nasty and often venal political deals get done. Not just in America either. Watching this particular mess we caught a glimpse of the bargaining that normally goes behind closed doors and before whole cloth agreements miraculously emerge. Most people really didn’t like the sausage making or the sausage. Their sensibilities were disturbed.
I’m sympathetic. That part of me that is only a citizen and not a negotiation professional felt some of this (See Note 7). On the other hand, and truthfully speaking, I really like a nice hot dog once in a while. In particular, and usually after being really good and eating months of salads and fresh veggies, I yearn for an over-the-top hot dog, Chicago style, “dragged through the garden” as they say, steamed to perfection and served up on a soft white-bread bun with onions, sweet pickle relish, tomato wedges, snappy peppers, a dash of celery salt, yellow mustard, a pickle spear and maybe some salty potato chips to go with them.
A real heart stopper if there ever was one, an “infarction special” as my colleague Doug Thompson likes to say. I know that most high stakes political negotiations are, like hot dogs, “mystery meat.” But friends, that’s how it is. Like sharks, insurance salesmen, and internet scams, down and dirty mash-ups are part of the way the world works even if we aspire to a higher ground. They are a part of the real business we are all engaged in and, if you search your own soul, you have done this yourself or facilitated it in others.
Like we try to do in our efforts, hot dog manufacturers also put a friendly face on things. They tell us the hot dogs some of us love are made of “specially selected meat trimmings” which, according to the Food and Drug Administration, cannot be made up of more than 15 percent variety meats. “Variety meats” is code for heart, liver, and other organs and tissues stripped away from carcasses by big machines. If manufacturers exceed this amount, they have to label them as made of "meat byproducts" (See Note 8).
Maybe the day will come when political negotiations will carry disclosure labels and tell us what is inside the particular ones we are interested in. Until then, this last one over the national debt was a perfect metaphor and a negotiation voyeur’s and hot dog aficionado’s delight: a fat Chicago style dog filled with the negotiatory equivalents of ground meat scraps, strange byproducts, fats, nitrates, preservatives, fillers and cellulose casings.
In negotiation, as in life, we are what we eat. Bon appetite! I believe hot dogs should be savored on infrequent occasions like the 4th of July, a baseball game, or a camping trip. Intensely political high stakes negotiations are the same way. Despite our puritanical demands for transparency, we also know that negotiators often need a few moments away from public. Luckily, we got an instructive peek at this last one. Unluckily, it may have set precedents we will come to regret.
Note 1: If you are interested in the latest notions about the teaching of negotiation, you might want to tuck into a series of books edited by Christopher Honeyman, James Coben, and Giuseppe De Palo. For several years now, these three gentlemen have assembled some of the smartest teachers and practitioners available and put them into a collective quest for next-generation negotiation pedagogy. Their project has produced two books, Rethinking Negotiation Teaching (2009) and Venturing beyond the Classroom (2010), and a third is on its way.
Note 4: See Adler, P. and Benjamin, R.D. “Reel Negotiation: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly Reflections Of Negotiation And Mediation In Film,” www.mediate.com//articles; Benjamin, R. D. (1998), Negotiation and evil: The sources of religious and moral resistance to the settlement of conflicts. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 15: 245–266.; September 2003, Jossey-Bass Benjamin, R.D., “Swindlers, Dealmakers and Mediators,” ACResolution Magazine, Spr 2004; “The Guerilla negotiator: Collected Articles of R.D. Benjamin, CD rom, Mediate.Com, 2005.
Note 5: In a side conversation leading to this article, Robert suggests things are much deeper. The serpent is merely an agent. “Satan as negotiator” has a specific and timeless hostility to negocios -- business and enterprise. He thinks negotiation for many people is a moral “tarnish,” not just a “streak.”
Note 8: http://www.hot-dog.org/.