By Carson Wheet
I love negotiation theory. In fact, I hope to make a long career out of teaching others how to negotiate effectively, but every time someone asks me about my future profession, their eyes glaze over as I describe how one can use empathy and self-awareness to get what he or she wants. I have discovered that, to many people, effective negotiation is little more than a combination of deception, strong-arming, and mind control:
It’s tricking some sucker into paying twice what a car is worth.
It’s using leverage to fleece a business partner for every penny she’s got.
It’s convincing a group of Stormtroopers that “These are not the droids you’re looking for.”
Although I realize that the last situation may seem out of place, the recent Star Wars craze has compelled me to consider parallels between negotiation and the Star Wars universe. In that pursuit, I have discovered that, much like “The Force,” negotiation tactics can be used for good, but they can also have a “Dark Side.”
As I mentioned earlier, two underlying principles of effective negotiation are empathy and self-awareness. When one is not only empathetic toward the other side’s position, but also self-aware of his or her own interests, goals, and defaults, it is much easier to obtain a good result. This is because one can better create value working with, rather than against, a counterpart, and it is much easier to get what you want when you fully understand what you want. Nevertheless, being empathetic to a counterpart is often seen as “soft” or “weak.” People fear that working with a negotiation counterpart opens the door for that counterpart to take advantage of them. As Master Yoda said, though, “Fear is the path to the dark side.”
Fear is at least one major reason why people use difficult tactics. People fear being taken advantage of or “losing” a negotiation so they will often deceive, strong-arm, or trick a counterpart before the same can be done to them. There is a generally held notion that nice people get taken advantage of, so in order to negotiate effectively, you have to be “tough.” While aggressive or deceitful tactics can be effective negotiation techniques in the short term, they often have a deleterious effect on future negotiations. To demonstrate this point, consider how you would respond if someone were aggressive or deceitful towards you in a negotiation. Seriously…think about it…
I am willing to bet that your reaction would be either to swear a solemn vow to never deal with that person again or to fight fire with fire. Neither outcome is conducive to a long-term relationship, but I would imagine that your reaction would be exponentially more visceral if the negotiation had touched on a central piece of your identity such as gender, race, nationality, or religion. Emotionally charged negotiations require emotional intelligence, which is sadly neglected in most law school settings. Fortunately, this past semester I was able to participate in a pilot program called Real Talk, which was designed to facilitate constructive conversations about emotionally sensitive subjects like race, gender, and identity.
My role in Real Talk was to facilitate dialogue about sensitive issues among six of my classmates from diverse backgrounds. Despite the fact that this blog began with a discussion about negotiations, I want to be clear that there is a huge difference between negotiation and facilitation. Whereas negotiation is about getting what you want and convincing another party to agree to something, facilitation is about opening space for others to express themselves and hear perspectives that are different from their own. In Real Talk, my goal as a facilitator was to foster safe and constructive dialogue about issues that affect our campus and nation as a whole such as racism, sexism, and white supremacy. Although Real Talk sessions were not negotiations, many of the tools and emotional intelligence that I had developed to manage emotional negotiations turned out to be extremely helpful in facilitating these discussions. In my small group, I utilized effective negotiation techniques such as asking open-ended questions, paraphrasing responses, and acknowledging emotions in order to foster deep and meaningful conversations.
Midway through the semester, I was very happy with the conversations that were taking place in my Real Talk group and I was personally satisfied with how I had begun confronting difficult conversations in my own life. I had finally stopped tip-toeing around controversial issues and, to be honest, I was pretty proud of myself—that is, I was proud of myself until one day in late November when I tried talking about racism with a good friend of mine. In response to my invitation to talk, my friend said, “You and me can talk [un]til we’re blue in the face, but it won’t change ****.” As a result of this exchange, I began having doubts about the significance of Real Talk and difficult conversations as a whole. In the face of so many difficult issues, maybe conversation was pointless? Maybe Dark Side negotiation tactics were the answer after all? Maybe change is only possible when you force people to do what you want? As I look back on the semester now though, you might say that I have “A New Hope” for the role of conversation in helping people get to a place where change becomes possible.
Nationally, there is reason to believe that the recent media attention given to race issues in America has shed light on institutional oppression and changed the minds of many who believed that racism was a thing of the past. A recent study reveals that in the past eighteen months, a significant percentage of Americans went from believing that the country had achieved equality to believing that changes need to be made to the status quo. Anecdotally, I have personally witnessed the transformation of individuals from indifferent bystanders to zealous advocates for racial justice. Their transformation was not the result of deception, strong-arming, or Jedi mind tricks. Their transformation was facilitated by conversations that increased empathy, understanding, and humanity and thereby opened people’s minds to the possibility of something else. In other words, talking can “change ****.” It is not always fast and it is not the sexiest agent of change, but it is available to all of us and costs nothing to try. If you do try, sincerely and consistently, you may find, as I have, that conversations about sensitive issues can make someone question truths that he or she never doubted until they heard the story told from another person’s perspective.
For all my Star Wars references in this blog, I actually disagree with the premise of someone being an agent entirely of the dark side or the light side. As Darth Vader showed us in the end, we are all full of nuances and contradictions. Good and evil. We are capable of enriching the lives of others and depressing those who stand in the way of our desires. The moments that define who we are and what we stand for are ever-present. It falls to each one of us to determine how we want to proceed in those moments. Do we want to live in fear and take advantage of people before they can do the same to us? Or do we want to put down our light sabers for a moment—to actively seek and consider the perspectives of people who think differently than us? Conversations can change people, but they can’t start themselves. It falls on each of us to incorporate some version of Real Talk into our daily lives if we are to overcome all the fear and misunderstandings that exist among strangers.
Help me, dearest reader. You’re my only hope!
 See Roger Fisher, William Ury & Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In 131 (3d ed. 2011).