Conflict Resolution|Negotiation

Mnookin, Spock and the Devil

Bob Mnookin of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation has a buddy named Spock.  Spock is available to Bob whenever, like Faust, Bob meets the Devil and is enticed to cut a deal with him.  In his 2010 volume, Bargaining With the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight, we get the opportunity to eavesdrop on sophisticated bargaining considerations among Bob, Spock, the Devil, and Conscience.

Also from Act I of "Faust" by

We also learn quite a bit about helping folks to strike deals with counterparties they have demonized — but that’s a different topic entirely.The book starts with helpful pedagogy concerning how we analyze whether to bargain, and how we avoid traps that mislead us in making that decision.  In the course of this rich and clear discussion, we are introduced to Spock.  Spock reappears throughout the book, like the Devil himself, and asks the same five questions:

1.  Interests: What are my interests?  What are my adversary’s interests?  (The answer in each case is multiple.)

2.  Alternatives: What are my alternatives to negotiation?  What are my adversary’s alternatives?

3.  Potential negotiated outcomes:  Is there a potential deal (or deals) that could satisfy both parties’ interests better than our alternatives to negotiation?

4.  Costs:  What will it cost me to negotiate? What do I expect to lose in terms of tangible resources: Money and time?  Will my reputation suffer? Will negotiating set a bad precedent?

5.  Implementation: If we do reach a deal, is there a reasonable prospect that it will be carried out?

The second section of the book then cites several complex decisions involving bad, bad actors, and we keep turning to Spock for advice.

  • Should Anatoli Sharansky negotiate with the KGB for his release from Lefortovo prison and subsequent labor camps?
  • Should Rudolf Kasztner negotiate with Adolf Eichmann for the safe transport, by train, of a group of Hungarian Jews?
  • Should Winston Churchill negotiate with Aldolf Hitler a cessation to the Battle of Britain in May 1940?
  • Should Nelson Mandela negotiate with the Government of South Africa for the reinstatement of the African National Congress and his release from 23 years of imprisonment?

Answers to these questions are surprisingly well framed using Spock’s formulation.  Were Churchill to negotiate with Hitler, the Allies would lose necessary hope for leadership.  Eichmann is an unreliable negotiating partner and there is no basis to think that a deal at the table would result in a train at the station.  Mandela and the new South African government had too many shared interests to ignore the opportunity to negotiate to achieve them.

Indeed, one leaves this section of Mnookin’s book wondering what role — if any — conscience plays, at least when one is negotiating on behalf of others.  Perhaps, if we refuse to negotiate despite Spock’s conditions being met, conscience makes cowards of us all.

 Savage Chickens - To Be Or Not

The last section of the book, while engrossing, seems not to have much to do with bargaining with the devil.  Rather, it examines case studies of negotiations that took place between rational and clearheaded parties, each of whom had demonized or dehumanized the other.  What was missing was not basic morality or humanity, but rather empathy.  The guy at the other end of the table isn’t the Devil — he’s just a jerk.

Still, it’s hard not to learn from — and be inspired by — Robert Mnookin.  I’ve already earmarked pages, and I’ve only read it twice!

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