Understanding Interests Means Adding Value

I told my wife that I wanted to do the following exercise with my 50-person ADR survey class at New York Law School:

“Find a partner and face each other.  Touch your palms together about face-level and then grasp each other’s hand.  The person who can get the other person’s hand past their own ear five times in the next fifteen seconds gets a hundred bucks.”

My wife’s response:  “Don’t do that!  They’ll hurt each other!  Say ‘No hurting’ or ‘Be careful of each other’ or something like that!”

I did the exercise at the end of a 100-minute class where we learned about negotiation theory and, particularly, the distinctions between positional and interest-based bargaining and between integrative and distributional bargaining.  We had lots of discussion about the lawyer’s duty to maximize the client’s outcome.  We played “Win As Much As You Can.”  We discussed the Prisoners’ Dilemma and the strategy of “Tit For Tat.”  We connected the dots by drawing outside the box.

The plan was to culminate the session with this exercise, watch as they pushed and shoved each other, and then say with professorial hauteur, “Well you see this shows no learning.”

It didn’t go according to plan.  I gave the instructions.  Each of the 25 couples looked at each other and, almost immediately and with practically no speaking whatsoever, waved their grasped hands back and forth five times and then sat down. 

I was flabbergasted.  “Gob-smacked,” as our Brit buddies so alarmingly put it.  Rather than competing to see which would win the $100, they each won.  Each earned $100, and the total dole-out was $5,000 rather than $2,500.  I congratulated them, they stared blankly at me, and we parted.

At the beginning of the next class we discussed what had happened.  I waxed rhapsodic about added value and cooperative negotiation and so on.  To them, on the other hand, it was utterly plain.  If they knew what the other guy wanted, and if the other guy knew what they wanted, and if both could get it, then they both should.  

Yes, I said, but real-life negotiation isn’t like that. 

Why not, they asked. 

Because the other guy never knows what you want, I said. 

Why not, they asked. 

Because you don’t tell them what you want, I said. 

Why not, they asked. 

Because they don’t tell you what they want, I said. 

Why not, they asked.

Hrrumph, I said, with professorial hauteur.

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