Bob Mnookin deals with the devil

BY NATHANIEL FINTZ

devilbargain
Robert Mnookin ’68

You are beside yourself with rage.  Your small research-and-development firm in Silicon Valley has partnered with a Japanese company to manufacture and distribute your product.  But you’ve just discovered that this company has violated your contract by secretly creating a knock-off of the design you licensed to them—and selling it in the Chinese market!  They deny wrongdoing, and they also want to renegotiate your original contract. 

You are so angry you can hardly think straight.  But what should you do?  Should you bargain with this devil?  This question, which arises in so many situations, is central to Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight, a new book by Professor Robert H. Mnookin ’68, Chair of the Program on Negotiation.  Rejecting any categorical answers to that fraught question, Mnookin develops and presents a highly nuanced, context-based approach for how one can choose wisely between battle and bargaining. 

The situation described above is but one of several captivating stories that fill the pages of Mnookin’s book.  Each chapter recounts a real-life, high-stakes conflict where emotions ran high.  The contexts differ radically: the chapters include a business conflict between two giant computer companies, a bitter American divorce, and a family inheritance fight.  Other stories emerge out of profound political conflicts.  Some involve political leaders like Winston Churchill or Nelson Mandela; other tales concern lesser-known figures who came face-to-face with Nazi officers or the KGB.  As Simon & Schuster officially releases Bargaining with the Devil, bookstores might have some trouble deciding which section or shelf should be its home.  History?  Current affairs?  Business?  Family?  All of the above?        

In spite of this conspicuous variety, Mnookin’s tales all share a set of key elements.  In each tale, demonization is rampant, and at least one person perceives an adversary as evil.  In some cases Mnookin thinks the perception of evil is fully justified—in others, a mere product of partisan animosity.  And in every single story the same decision must be made: negotiate or fight? 

The compelling nature of this question was evidenced by the crowd in the Ropes Gray Room on February 4, when over two hundred people attended a reception and panel in celebration of the book’s publication.  Along with Mnookin, the featured panelists included Dean Martha Minow, Professors Gabriella Blum LL.M. ’01 S.J.D. ’03 and David Hoffman ’84, and Margot Strom, Executive Director of the think tank Facing History and Ourselves. 

So, should you bargain with the devil?  Mnookin distances himself from the standard categorical answers.  Some would always bargain with the devil; others would never do so.  Speaking to the Record, Mnookin characterized the first view as “the conventional wisdom in my field”—the conviction that “you should always be prepared to negotiate with your enemy, because after all that’s the only way you can make peace with your enemy.”  In rejecting this categorical position, he demonstrates a laudable boldness: at the panel, Blum noted how remarkable it is that Mnookin, “who has dedicated his life to the negotiation field in both scholarship and practice,” here questions a basic assumption that is so fundamental to that field. 

Mnookin also firmly rejects as unwise the opposite notion—that you should never negotiate with an adversary whom you don’t trust or who you think is evil.  He questioned, for example, the Bush administration’s refusal to negotiate or engage with Iran.  And he challenged the notions of some litigators or public interest lawyers who think it is always better to fight it out in court than to negotiate a deal.  

Rejecting both these categorical answers, Mnookin expressed his view that “the challenge is to make wise decisions at a particular time in a particular context.”  Accordingly, the book endeavors to answer the question, “By what process might one try to go about making a wise decision?”  When you’re thrust directly into the presence of a devil, how can you avoid the common traps (such as tribalism, demonization, and dehumanization) that inhibit clear, reasoned thinking?  To answer this question, Mnookin suggests a single “framework” that can consistently facilitate a wise decision about whether or not to bargain with the devil.

This framework involves asking yourself “five basic questions.”  First, inquire into your interests, and those of your adversary.  Second, investigate your alternatives to negotiation, and those of your adversary.  Third, consider whether any potential deal could satisfy both parties’ interests better than their respective alternatives to negotiation.  Fourth, consider the costs of negotiation.  Fifth, consider the likelihood that a deal, if reached, would be implemented.  If this framework seems coldly rational, that is because it is tailor-made to help isolate the signal from amid all the noise—to tease the precious thread of reasoned analysis out from amid a tortuous tangle of other non-rational strands.

In short, Mnookin advocates a particular decision-making process.  He acknowledged that “[d]ifferent people applying the framework can reach different conclusions.”  This is because “assessing the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action involve predictions, and always involve the application of values, and people can disagree.” 

Nowhere is the book’s admirable nuance more evident than where Mnookin fleshes out his approach to moral judgments: “[W]hen the analytic side [of the brain] is acting as a dispassionate judge weighing all the arguments, not a lawyer defending a foregone conclusion, … moral values should, and in some cases must, be factored into decision-making.”  The limited but crucial point is to avoid any abdication of reasoned analysis.

In each chapter, Mnookin offers his appraisal of each character’s decision on whether to fight or negotiate.  But he makes a point of “giving enough evidence … and telling the story in a way where there’s plenty there if people want to reach a different conclusion than the one I reach.”  As Blum noted, “it is only a very confident writer that can do this.”  The book invites the reader to engage closely with each tale; during his writing process, Mnookin thought carefully about how to “take the reader into the story.”  Storytelling is “a different kind of writing than what I’d ever done before,” Mnookin said, yet he has met this new challenge with great success: Minow hailed the stories as “compelling,” and Blum added that each one reads “like a page-turner.”  

Mnookin expressly welcomes diversity in his readership.  Hoffman described for the audience in Ropes Gray just a few of the many ways that the book will be directly useful to “the dispute-resolution world.”  At the same time, Mnookin said that while his other books have been aimed primarily at academics or professionals concerned with negotiation or conflict, he hopes this book will also reach a broader audience.  Mnookin is surely correct in his belief that “there are a lot of people that can connect with the theme of the book,” which arises with great frequency in everyday business and family situations.  “There are many other stories that could be told” and “lots of other chapters” that could be written, he said.   

Mnookin also singled out what he called “the NPR audience”—the “intelligent lay reader who is interested in ideas” and who is especially likely to find the book intellectually stimulating.  Also, Blum remarked, “There are definitely a number of contemporary leaders I’d love to send the book to.”  Last but not least, Mnookin’s readers will s
urely include HLS students—especially since he might assign some of the chapters of the book in next year’s Negotiation Workshop.  Mnookin’s book should be considered required reading for students and non-students alike.  And within this diverse readership, few are likely to disagree that if you read Bargaining with the Devil, a face-to-face encounter with evil will never make you lose your wits.  Satan, for his part, would probably want this book banned. 

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