Friday, May 29, 2015

John Nash

Last week we heard the news of the strangely untimely death of mathematician John Nash, whose life story was made famous in the book and film "A Beautiful Mind." The Nash equilibrium is a concept sometimes touched upon in teaching negotiation theory, and it's not difficult to understand why we should try to understand it, even if we might have trouble doing the math. What Nash and others taught us that is especially relevant to conflict resolution is that parties involved in conflict will often rationally both choose a sub-optimal outcome for themselves. Therefore they will benefit from learning how to be more cooperative with their adversary. That means Nash's mathematical theory helps prove the usefulness of mediators or some other mechanism to encourage greater cooperation.

But Nash's own life story, and even his tragic death, prove something else also, which is that people are not governed solely by rational calculations, whether selfish or cooperative. Nash's own mind was taken over by irrational impulses for many years, due to his struggles with mental illness, and he only regained its rational functions late in life. His death in a freakish taxi accident, also could not be predicted by any mathematical equation or other rational process. Those hoping that a rational formula can be devised to resolve conflict are going to be disappointed. We also have to take account of irrational impulses, feelings and emotions, and just plain bad luck.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Art of Negotiation

A long time ago, when I was fairly new at law practice, I represented a plaintiff in a contentious sexual harassment case against a large company. After a series of pre-trial battles, the defendant's counsel opened the door to the possibility of settlement, throwing out an insultingly low-ball number. I wasn't sure how to respond.

At that point in my career, I thought I knew how to litigate, but nobody had ever taught me how to negotiate. I had never received any training in negotiation strategy in law school, and very little at my law firm. The subject simply wasn't taught at the time. So I honestly didn't know the best number to come back with in order to lead the process to a good result for my client. For some reason I confessed my weakness to the other side, saying something that indicated I wasn't sure what to do next. My adversary's response was to ask me whether there was anyone else at my firm who was more skilled at negotiation who could get back to him with a response to his offer.

Suddenly I understood two things. First, there was nobody else at my firm who could do this better than I could. This was my case, and I knew it better than anyone. Second, I realized from defense counsel's somewhat desperate request for somebody to negotiate with, that the other side was extremely anxious to make a deal. Their aggressive litigation strategy had failed to make us go away, and now they were looking at the high costs and high risks of proceeding to trial. I knew they would pay more than they were offering, even though I wasn't sure how much I could talk them up.

Once I figured out how to process what the other side was telling me, I had the confidence to handle the negotiations, And I was able to engage in the kind of give-and-take necessary to get the deal done. After that, I never again thought of myself as someone who didn't know how to negotiate.

This story came back to me as I was reading a book called The Art of Negotiation, by Michael Wheeler, a professor at Harvard Business School, who is also part of Harvard's well-known Program on Negotiation. I picked up the book after I had a chance to hear Wheeler talk at UCLA about his theories of negotiation. The book is filled with entertaining stories about buying houses and cars, and closing business deals. Wheeler teaches classes on negotiation, so he obviously believes students can learn about negotiation in a classroom. But he also understands that negotiation is more of an art than a science. His theme is about the importance of improvisation in negotiation: responding to the cues and information given by the other side It's about the attention, presence of mind, and creativity needed to succeed in negotiation.

In other words, the secrets of negotiation lie not so much in knowing how to parry and thrust against the other side's maneuvers to score the most points. In fact, Wheeler repeatedly emphasizes that pushing for the best possible deal is not necessarily to a negotiator's advantage. Sometimes an overly aggressive approach will cause the other side to walk away, and sometimes getting more than your fair share will end up costing you in the end.

Instead, being a good negotiator is more about being in tune with the needs and desires of the other side, the way that good jazz musicians or theatrical improvisers respond to what they hear from their counterparts. It's about having a plan and then throwing that plan out the window as soon as you encounter the unpredictable response of the other side. And it's about learning how to treat our adversary as a partner in a project that requires more collaboration than competition.



Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Doug Noll show

I was interviewed recently by California mediator Doug Noll, on topics ranging from the business of mediation, to the decline in joint sessions, mediation confidentiality, and mediator certification. I also had a chance to trot out some of my pet theories about how to reform our justice system in general, and how mediation training is helpful in every walk of life, not just in training to become a mediator.

The audio broadcast can be found here.