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Book review: Negotiating with the devil

A new book explores how to negotiate when your adversary is a 'devil.'

When NDP Leader Jack Layton suggested four years ago that it might be time to negotiate our way out of Afghanistan, the ridicule came loud and lusty. “Taliban Jack,” the op-eds screamed. “More ravings from the idiot left.” Even Condoleeza Rice, then-U.S. secretary of state, on a visit north, joined in. “These are people who whipped women in stadiums given to them by the international community to play soccer, who refused to let women learn to read. The Taliban made Afghanistan a failed state and a terrorist haven for al-Qaida so that they could launch the Sept. 11 attack. What’s to negotiate?”

How times have changed. If it’s not yet accepted as plain fact, neither is it any longer a marginal proposition that some kind of negotiated resolution with the Taliban will be necessary as the West searches for an exit strategy. But even if a settlement of some kind proves possible, the thought of negotiating with an enemy that many consider evil can’t help but stick in the craw.

A professor at Harvard’s law school and chair of the school’s Program on Negotiation, Robert Mnookin was called on to advise President Bush in September 2001, when the Taliban responded to Bush’s original ultimatums with an offer to negotiate. Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight is his guide to answering the questions posed when negotiation seems unsavoury, even reprehensible: “A business partner has betrayed you and now wants to negotiate a better deal. A marriage is ending and a divorcing spouse is making extortionist demands. A competitor has stolen your intellectual property. … You want your rights vindicated, and the thought of negotiating with your adversary seems wrong.”

Mnookin’s goal is to teach you how to think through such intense conflict, and how, in the face of strong feelings or moral principles, to make a wise decision about whether to negotiate with an adversary. Understand that he’s not talking about your workaday competitors: the adversary he’s counselling you against is “someone who has deeply wronged [you] and poses a serious threat to [your] well-being,” and the case studies he’s chosen reflect those criteria.

The business cases – the long-running struggle between IBM and arch-rival Fujitsu, for one – have in some ways the lowest stakes, certainly when compared to the situation in which the lawyer and journalist Rudolf Kasztner found himself during the Holocaust, negotiating with Adolf Eichmann for the freedom of some of his fellow Jewish-Hungarians while allegedly agreeing to keep quiet about the fate awaiting many more. Given nuanced treatments here, too, are the cases of Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, who “have each become an archetype, a stock narrative that people tend to use as a convenient rationale for a decision they have already made. When they don’t want to negotiate, they tell the story of Churchill and the failure of appeasement. When they want to negotiate, they tell the Mandela story.” In reality, says Mnookin, it’s rarely so cut and dried.

The professor identifies three key challenges to making a wise decision about negotiating with the enemy. First, it’s important to avoid emotional traps, positive or negative, that can skew your judgment. It’s crucial not to demonize your opponent in assessing his underlying character, for example, nor should you be too quick to rationalize away his behaviour. It’s important, too, to clearly analyze where your interests lie, as well as those of your adversary, and what alternatives to negotiation are open to you both. Third and most problematic, you need to address the ethical and moral issues that will no doubt arise when confronting a devil – and you need to be clear about what those are. He warns: “Primal emotions, such as the desire for revenge, may be hard to distinguish from moral impulses.”

The reason it’s so challenging to think our way through conflicts like these, he says, is the tension between our two different modes of thinking, the intuitive and the analytical. This “dual processing system” is balanced differently in each of us. Some of us skew more emotional, some more rational. But in almost all of us, intuitive responses come instantly, outpacing and even obscuring our analytical reactions. That can make it hard to be reasonable in the face of a conflict, especially a loaded one; as Mnookin suggests, before making a decision about negotiating, it’s essential to take a moment to consult your internal Mr. Spock (or better yet an external one, if a detached and rational third-party opinion is available).

In application, these decisions become much trickier equations. “The Faustian tension between pragmatism and principle is the heart of this book,” Mnookin writes, and it’s often a painful choice between the two poles. He cites the case of Anatoli Sharansky, a public spokesperson for the Soviet Zionist movement whom the KGB arrested for his outspokenness. Condemned to three years in prison and a decade in a forced labour camp, Sharansky was offered the chance to join his wife in Israel in exchange for a public disavowal of his beliefs.

A purely pragmatic assessment of Sharansky’s position might have made confession seem a no-brainer. The repudiation of the principles to which he’d dedicated his life, however, would have made his freedom not worth having. In the end, he chose not to negotiate, and while emotion played a huge role in his decision to resist, the underpinning of his decision was analytical. A chess master who’d studied mathematics and game theory, Sharansky was guided by a hierarchical “tree” of goals, as well as conditions for attaining them. He measured the odds of achieving the outcome he wanted without negotiation, and opted not to engage.

It’s a cold calculus, but when your livelihood, or the business you’ve built (never mind your life), is threatened by a bully, Mnookin insists it’s the way you need to think.

Executive summaries

On the Brink: Inside the Race To Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System
(Business Plus)
Henry M. Paulson, Jr.

With a number of you-are-there narratives already on the shelves, we’re due a memoir by someone who actually was there. Former Treasury secretary Hank Paulson was the point person in the U.S. government’s attempts in 2008 to keep the global economy from following Lehman Bros., AIG et al. down the drain. Unusually for a political memoir, Paulson trades very little in scandal and score-settling. None of the principals on the government side get thrown under the bus (though McCain, Palin and the other Republicans who kneejerked against intervention are handily dismissed). Instead he offers a rush of minute-by-minute detail, and a personal candour about his thoughts and feelings while he quarterbacked a bailout that he believed was necessary but that ran counter to his core beliefs. ‘As first responders to an unprecedented crisis that threatened the destruction of the modern financial system, we had little choice,’ he writes. But the details of this narrative have already been thoroughly explored; what you hope for in vain throughout Paulson’s memoir is a broader refl ection on the roots of the crisis and their meaning. Though by all accounts a good man who did his best in an impossible job, the lessons he learned from the crisis — that the regulatory system needs overhaul, for example — are unremarkable.

The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume One: Microeconomics
(Hill and Wang)
Grady Klein and Yoram Bauman

Apparently there is such thing as a stand-up comedian-slash-economist, and University of Washington professor Yoran Bauman has the YouTube hits to prove it. This collaboration with award-winning illustrator Grady Klein aspires to amuse while covering microeconomic basics like taxes and elasticity, in addition to a smattering of the Freakonomics-style neato stuff — the Prisoner’s Dilemma, sealed-bid auctions. It’s heavy on theoretical examples, and that they’re presented in comic strip form doesn’t dumb this volume down more than any other intro-to-micro manual on the market; it’s accessible, but the target audience seems to be visual learners with a sense of humour, rather than the kids at the back of the class. And since many of the investors and homeowners burned so badly in the past two years have developed a sense that economics is as much of a science as the cartoon physics governing Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, this book may find a ready audience.

Money for Nothing: How the Failure of Corporate Boards Is Ruining American Business and Costing Us Trillions
(Free Press)
John Gillespie and David Zweig

‘In effect, boards are the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of business government, as well as the bankers, the police, and the tribal elders.’ Or at least, they’re supposed to be. Behind every great American corporate failure of recent vintage, from Enron to Hollinger to General Motors, there seems to be a board of directors that was derelict in its duties. Former investment banker Gillespie and Salon.com co-founder Zweig turn their sights on these opaque institutions that have become enablers of corporate malfeasance instead of defenders of shareholders’ interests. They find a very deliberate lack of transparency between boards and the shareholders they’re supposed to represent, and a ‘dangerous’ dynamic that sees directors beholden to CEOs for their standing and detached from the operations they’re supposed to oversee. Beyond their excoriation of board culture, the authors offer a long list of proposed solutions to improve corporate democracy. But as in any democracy, the ultimate onus remains on the citizens; abuses at the board level will continue as long as shareholders allow them.