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Downton Abbey Negotiations: A Primer on Surviving in Turbulent Times, Then and Now

The author offers a ‘spoiler alert’ for those concerned. Some of the subject matter discussed references the current season.

January 6, 2014

The PBS television drama series, Downton Abbey, depicting the turbulent social, cultural, and economic times in England a century ago, has justifiably captured the imagination and interest of many viewers. Less noticed is the unusual attention given to the negotiations that necessarily occurred and allowed people to endure those disruptions. Negotiation strategies and techniques are presented throughout in a thoughtful and realistic manner that makes the program relevant to present day practice and worthy of study.

Downton Abbey, the PBS dramatic series, could cynically be dismissed as little more than a soap opera for elitists. With the exception of a few Americans, the cast all sport British accents, and the production is detailed by exquisite turn of the 20th Century fashion, staged in an authentic castle with a perfectly appointed interior, that targets the anglophiles among us. The cosmetics notwithstanding, however, this drama is clearly to be differentiated from its more crass American cousin, Dallas. The latter, which is more common in film and television productions, is a more pure form of soap opera. Each episode is calculated to deliver a series of superficial emotional charges that send viewers careening from one improbable and implausible crisis to another, requiring little thinking and offering up only the most rash and simplistic solutions, by one-dimensional characters. It’s purpose is solely entertainment.

Downton Abbey, by contrast, while emotionally engrossing, offers a story line that is realistic enough to move beyond being merely a visceral grab. The series explores the struggle of people to make sense of things; the characters more closely and realistically display how people react and deal with each other and the difficult issues they face, or more precisely, how they negotiate. This series, created, produced and written by Julian Fellowes, is exceptional because those well drawn scenes of negotiations planned and executed are made an integral part of the drama. They demonstrate how people in real life are able to shift, adapt, and in some circumstances flat-out survive, difficult circumstances and major personal, social, political, and economic change. Apart from being a highly regarded actor and writer, his uniquely heightened awareness of the importance and inner workings of negotiation, is quite possibly drawn from growing up the son of a diplomat and from politics, as a member of Britain’s House of Lords.

Viewers are drawn into the scene and encouraged to reflect and think about how they might manage being confronted with difficult events and situations. And although Downton Abbey is set in the first decades of the 1900’s, curiously, the issues are effectively the same as those we are dealing with in the present day. There are the severe economic stresses caused by a rapidly emerging technical and industrial economy, the costs and ravages of war, issues of social mobility between the “upper and lower” classes, all interwoven with religious cultural and generational tensions and intensified by family and personal affairs. At the core of the series is the longstanding controversy that has continued through the ages between those who are of a conservative bent who want to hold tenaciously to real or imagined traditions, and those of a more progressive persuasion who cannot embrace the future fast enough. Then as now, shifts in that dynamic balance comes about in peoples’ thinking primarily through countless small and large negotiations. Those discussions regularly take place, in some fashion, at their dinner tables, in their beds, in their workplaces, in the corridors outside of courtrooms, or after wars to re-establish a semblance of normalcy.

Downton Abbey realistically depicts how most negotiations occur, not just then –100 years ago — but today as well. For that reason alone, the series is worthy of study by anyone interested in practicing or teaching negotiation, or any of the allied negotiative processes, like mediation. Of course, few people, then or even now, have carefully studied negotiation in a systematic or disciplined manner, as surprising as that might seem given the importance of the skillset. Most people have learned to negotiate by “hit and miss” — some better than others — from experience. For this reason, I suspect many, if not most, viewers of the series, probably do not immediately realize they are seeing negotiations unfold; they are watching the drama primarily through a historical lens. For them, Downton Abbey is a period piece that is about how life was and people acted back then.

The notion that people have little sense of negotiation is well presented by Mary, Lord and Lady Grantham’s eldest daughter. Characteristic of the period — but not so removed from the present day — as a woman, mother, and a widow grieving the recent loss of her husband Matthew who was tragically killed in a automobile accident the day of their son’s birth, Mary is deemed to be uninterested and incapable of negotiating business matters. (Season 4:1) As her character develops over the coming season, however, she will increasingly need to rapidly learn how to negotiate. Not only in her personal affairs, but with and alongside her traditionalist father concerning the business of running Downton. For many people, it is the forces of circumstance that first compels them to think about how to negotiate.

With limited exceptions, such as Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, very little dramatic work, whether in film, theater, or television, focuses on negotiation. If shown at all, scenes of negotiation appear artificial, clipped, and fanciful. Many scriptwriters stay away from depicting negotiation because the traditional thinking is that it is akin to watching paint dry and simply not active and engaging enough to hold the audience. In Downton Abbey, however, while the negotiation scenes are not the central focus, neither are they slighted. In fact, those scenes are used to build suspense and give a deeper understanding of what is at stake for the characters involved. In most of the scenes, there is no immediate resolution, and just as in the real world, “things have to simmer” before decisions can be made; there is a notable absence of “right” answers or obvious outcomes. In addition, there is a display of a number of negotiation strategies and techniques, used for different purposes by different people, sometimes constructively and sometimes not. The object lesson, of course, is that a particular approach is not to be judged right or wrong, per se, but rather to be gauged by the purpose for which it was employed.

The Dowager Countess of Grantham, played brilliantly by Dame Maggie Smith, is an especially deft example. Being the penultimate guardian of tradition, she nonetheless, out of pragmatic necessity, is willing to engage in any number of subterfuges to maintain the peace, good order and survival of Downton Abbey. She plays the “hidden hand” that surreptitiously orchestrates and mediates the mending of a marital rift that has occurred between Lord and Lady Grantham. Their second daughter, Sybil, died while giving birth to their grandchild and Lady Grantham blamed her husband for obstinately preferring and following the advice of an “expert” doctor over the local family physician, who had recommended a Caesarian Section. The Dowager Countess first secretly met with the family doctor and “discusses” (with a hint of coercion) how a more palatable explanation for Sybil’s death might be allowed by the “facts” of medical science, and then proceeds to bring about an planned/impromptu meeting of her son and daughter-in-law with the doctor so that they might be allowed to consider and alternative story line for their daughter’s death that does not require blame.

Not surprisingly, the same ‘hidden hand’ tactic that can be constructive is also shown in a different circumstance to be disruptive and sinister—just as it has been throughout history. Barrow, a Footman, and O’Brien, Lady Grantham’s Lady’s Maid, both plant rumors and connive to manipulate the politics of the house for their own gain. Both upstairs in the family, and downstairs among the service staff, secrets and plots abound between the characters as they do in many, if not most, families. The risk of playing the ‘hidden hand’ is often a feeling of betrayal and the loss of trust.

As the characters of Downton Abbey struggle with change or perceived threats, again realistically, their first response is a typically a very human and familiar one: denial and resistance. The series addresses the effects of World War I on the lives of the family and service staff, both the emotional toll and the economic strains and dislocations that significantly affect, change and threaten their way of life, along with the swift onset of countless other social and cultural changes. Negotiation, as it is much of the time in the real world, is not their first or preferred choice and there is a reluctance to face such difficult issues directly, let alone talk about them openly. As most people, the characters exhaust every other alternative before resorting to negotiation. Downton Abbey, however, often strikes a positive note; while the reluctance to deal with such matters is evident, there are more than a few times in the series where the whole family is shown gathering together and somehow sliding into discussions of those difficult issues.

The resistance to and necessity of negotiation is nowhere more apparent than in the recurring discussions of strategies to assure the financial survival of Downton Abbey. Even Lady Grantham, an American heiress, had originally been recruited to marry Lord Grantham some 20 years earlier in a calculated move to bring an infusion of cash to Downton. While not formally an arranged marriage, it makes clear that marriage, along with being a romantic union, often serves business, and sometimes, political purposes. Marriage has historically been, and continues to be, a negotiated arrangement. The character of Matthew, as well, is first introduced in an earlier episode as a distant relative with an available inheritance that makes him a suitable prospect to be courted for marriage to Lady Grantham’s eldest daughter, Lady Mary. Not surprisingly, however, given how the emerging “modern” notion of romantic love grates against earlier and more practical ideas of marriage as a business arrangement, their early relationship was shown as conflicted and grew by fits and starts. For the marriage to come about required a number of negotiations, some of which were ill fated. Of course, as a necessary audience treat, they ultimately formed a strong alliance, both emotionally and as partners in the family business.

Matthew Crowley’s role would continue on in subsequent episodes to spearhead the intergenerational strains that are familiar to business in general, and especially familiar to those involved in family businesses as they consider their future succession plans, all of which must be negotiated one way or another, if the business is to survive. He represents a younger generation with different ideas about management of the Downton Abbey enterprise that invariably present a challenge to Lord Grantham’s time worn traditional notions. Matthew, having invested, is unwilling to be a silent partner and — quite realistically — initially unappreciative and impatient with his father-in-law’s old approach bound up by history and tradition. Lord Grantham, having been the unquestioned CEO, is reluctant to give up his authority and to move to a more collaborative style of decision-making. The resulting negotiations, as they often are in such situations, are properly presented as strained and complex. As the discussions proceed, Matthew reviews the books and concludes that there has been past “mismanagement” of the Abbey — a semantic framing that would cause even a novice negotiator to cringe. Much of Season 3 of the series is taken up with the various alliances formed and side deals made among and between the family members that allowed the management arrangements to shift. Pressure had to be applied by others to both Matthew and Lord Grantham in order for them to come to terms. The intricacies and details of the negotiation are not glossed over; there is even attention given to how the characters might save face after the tense discussions.

Downton Abbey gives a good approximation of the ongoing nature of negotiations that must occur if people are to thrive and survive, especially in turbulent times. Enjoy the fashion, automobiles, and romantic interludes, but do not miss the opportunity to watch the negotiations unfold and, quite possibly, to learn from them.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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