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A Riposte to Robert Benjamin’s Parry

I found Robert Benjamin’s article (Obama: Reflections of a Hard Core Negotiator) intriguing. I have met Mr. Benjamin, talked with him, read his work, and heard him speak. He is a very likeable guy, so I dove into the article with enthusiasm. That enthusiasm waned the farther in I got, however. In particular, I found myself increasingly disappointed by his weary-sounding observations as a “seasoned” and “guerilla” negotiator, particularly in referring to Barack Obama, where Mr. Benjamin declares that his “reflexive pragmatism makes him cringe at that idealism.” I hope Mr. Benjamin is right that he is simply over-reacting to the demise of his marriage, for this article seems out of character. In fact, I can’t tell if he is being sardonic, sarcastic, or cynical. For the sake of discussion, I will assume it is all three, though I am not at all certain which part is which!

Mr. Benjamin argues for realistic expectations in negotiating conflict settlements—but what are realistic expectations? In many cases, those arguing for realistic expectations are those who stand to lose the most, such as employers or insurance companies, or those who have given up on attaining them due to frustrations and failures – one fears the blowback Mr. Benjamin references for pushing back too hard against high expectations and the other settles for inert uniformity, also known as entropy. Though formerly a practitioner of sometimes grabbing the low hanging fruit and calling it good, it now sounds to me like the Law of Diminishing Expectations – we get what we expect, and the less we expect the less we get.

I think Mr. Benjamin, intentionally or not, gives us a good lesson in the politics of cynicism where everyone is less than they seem, and perhaps brings a certain cynicism to conflict management, though that does not seem like him. He perhaps unintentionally seems to argue for combative mediocrity. Why else deride collaboration by saying that it “collides with the necessary ‘rough and tumble’ of hard negotiation required to deal with tough issues and hard feelings.” Really? Why is “rough and tumble” necessary in the first place? I think that hard bargaining is a stylistic tool rather than a way of life, in the short term useful in gaining a settlement but also in building long-term resentment, damaging a symbiotic relationship and leading to further conflict. I do not have to engage in rough and tumble bargaining to be effective with tough issues and hard feelings, but I do have to be a good negotiator.

Saying that, I had best establish my bona fides. I empathize with Mr. Benjamin because I have been there. In addition to being a mediator, I spent 26 years as a union advocate and contract negotiator. During that time, I negotiated between 6-10 labor contracts every year. I worked with locals on strike and (don’t try this at home!) sometimes engaged in marathon hard bargaining sessions lasting more than 24 hours. I am intimately familiar with hallway agreements beaten into us by mediators at 4:30 a.m. and the pragmatic compromises all negotiators make, sometimes rational and at times something less than rational. Oh, and by the way, I am also a trained police hostage negotiator – you don’t get any more pragmatic bargaining than that! All of which means I have earned my scars and none of which means that a rough and tumble style is necessary, or even desirable for tough issues and hard feelings. I will concede that it is easier, though, and usually more fun, but I’m not there anymore.

It may have a lot to do with what we expect from a negotiation. If we believe that people are inherently bad and difficult and demanding and problematic, then my experience says we are likely to have bad, difficult, demanding, and problematic people. If we believe that people have the capacity to solve their own problems and just need some coaching, then my experience says they are likely to solve their own problems with some coaching. So much of how people act during negotiations depends on how negotiators and mediators expect them to act, for we telegraph our behavioral expectations to them whether we intend to or not. We also telegraph our settlement aspirations. Yes, I practice the art of reality testing in almost every negotiation, but that is to make sure they have thought through the potential unintended consequences and know what they are agreeing to. I also often encourage them to set their sights higher and equally as often help them see that acceptable progress is preferable to unattainable perfection, sort of an incremental dream fulfillment.

Which brings me to this question: What is the point of the negotiation? Settlement? If so, why not set your sights high? The old school bargaining I was trained in mirrors Mr. Benjamin and says that a settlement that leaves everyone a bit unhappy is probably a good settlement. I think it means that no one gets everything he or she wants due to pragmatic compromises, so it’s probably the best we can get. I have also come to believe that it is a truly depressive statement (and yes, I have used it, so I don’t get off clean on this one) as it presupposes an outcome where everyone is unhappy, and then points at it when it happens and says, “See? I told you so!” It’s a self-fulfilling hypothesis of mediocre expectations. That said, I agree that there is no perfect, elegant, and permanent solution, but I do think we can do better than “cutting grubby deals that work – the adequate and the good, ” something I have also done.

Instead, perhaps we should pay attention to the research data that says the higher we set our expectations as negotiators, the more likely those expectations are to be met. I adopted that practice several years ago and saw immediate positive results – our clients, whether we act as partisan negotiator or neutral mediator, truly often do live up or down to our expectations, whether we intend them to or not; it’s part of being human.

Which brings me back to Barack Obama and the pursuit of dreams. I remember Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and have taken inspiration from it over the years even though I am a white male. No, that dream is not yet completed, but conflating dreams into unrealistic and therefore foolish expectations serves no one – no worthwhile dream should be easily or quickly dismissed or attained, and because it is difficult or the dream of an idealist does not mean it should be supplanted by cynicism. Yes, we need to look at dreams from the perspective of are they attainable dreams or unattainable hallucinations, but history suggests that we are not very good at discerning between them. One thing is certain: we will never reach our dreams if we do not pursue them through the thickets of despair and the swamps of failure. Moreover, if we do not dream big, we have no chance of succeeding big. I think Mr. Obama’s words and ideals resonate deeply within us because we still dream of something better and of being an active part of that something. We look around us and dream not of what is, but of what can be, and Obama is the only one speaking effectively to that longing.

As for the cynics and discouraged among us, I suggest you read Dr. King’s April 23, 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to better understand the effects of a “realistic” stance that we might hold on those who look to us for support and who dare to dream of better things. Dr. King, in speaking to the plight of African-Americans, described something that resonates for everyone in how he longed for “the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of the human personality.” As for me, a “good enough” settlement is not good enough because it means I have abandoned the hope of something better – I will continue to aim for something beyond my immediate grasp. Call me an idealist if you will – I won’t object. In fact, I take the label as an honor, because I used to be a cynic with mediocre expectations!

To answer your final question, Bob: It’s probably better to wait.


Darrell Puls

Darrell Puls is an adjunct professor of conflict management at Trinity Theological Seminary and private practice mediator, trainer, and writer living in Kennewick, Washington. He holds a doctorate in conflict management, specializes in organizational and church conflict resolution, and has worked in the conflict management field since 1976. MORE >

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