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Negotiation Fables For Children And Adults

Fred Rogers, of the classic television series, “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”, died recently. The program clearly qualifies as true American classic if the number of parodies it generated is any measure. But, despite the ribbing and caricatures he endured, Rogers was particularly dedicated to telling children the truth about difficult stuff, like death, illness and war. His heartfelt sincerity and authenticity could never be questioned—maybe that made him all the more a target.

So, during the first Iraq War, the Gulf War of 1991, as it is popularly known, and again after the September 11th terrorist bombing in New York and Washington D.C., Rogers was one of the few that talked to children, sensing they might be scared. In his inimitable style, he told them they should not worry, they would be safe, their parents and other adults would be there to take care of them and protect them. He meant well, but he did not tell the truth: there is no real protection for any of us—children or adults. Sometimes fables can be necessary and useful. But if they lull us into a false sense of security or competency, that can be risky business.

The fables unwittingly perpetuated by Mr. Rogers concern how much adults in general and our leaders in particular, know about dealing with conflict— about when to go to war and when to negotiate, and about trusting their experience as negotiators. In the events leading up to this most recent second Iraq war, I wanted to believe Mr. Roger. I wanted to presume there was some sophisticated, subtle and deft negotiation strategy going on behind the scenes that I simply could not know. I needed to share in Mr. Rogers’ confidence in the people in charge. My confidence is all but gone. The negotiation strategies I have observed are at best primitive and sometimes non-existent.

Mr. Rogers and I would likely still agree that these geopolitical conflicts are no small matter for children or adults and that there is a residual carryover effect that permeates the atmosphere of our daily lives. Obviously the television scenes can be disconcerting and frightening, but beyond that, children learn most of what they know by observing adults. Far more than by what they hear them say. This Second Iraq War has provided quite a lesson in the practice of war and negotiation. There is good reason to believe that seemingly distant geo-political conflicts, like those in Iraq or North Korea, affect how both children and adults deal with each other at home, in the workplace, at school, or in business, on a daily basis. How children manage a ‘small’ dispute or fight at school, with another kid who is considered ‘mean’ or a ‘bully’, bears a striking resemblance to how our leaders deal with an ‘evildoer’ like Sadaam Hussein. In both instances, negotiation is typically rejected with the off-handed dismissive comment, “some people only understand force; they’re crazy, irrational or completely unreasonable.” The perceived or real slight in a school dispute may seem trivial by comparison to a big, important international conflict between nations, but the same principles and strategies of war and negotiation are in play. The similarity between dealing with another person or another country that does not listen to ‘reason’, is not lost on children—or adults. There has not been much competent negotiation around to observe in the world for quite some time. This Second Iraq War may have been inevitable and justified, but we will never really know because mostly, it appears the United States just pretended to negotiate. When the headlines heralded: “Diplomacy is Over, It’s War,” I was left puzzled as to when diplomacy had begun—I thought maybe I had blinked and missed it. While deeply depressing and demoralizing, it is not surprising and only serves to reinforce how little regard given or understanding demonstrated for negotiation in our culture. What is worse, children are seeing negotiation that is more the stuff of fables than the real thing.

Here are seven of the most enduring negotiation fables:

1. “First, poison the well.” Cultivate distrust. Take every opportunity to abandon prior commitments and on whim pull out of treaties and agreements previously negotiated. The Kyoto Accords were bothersome. Denigrate the value or importance of any international body or organization that might potentially constrain the exercise of unfettered American prerogative. The United Nations and the World Court are examples of such bothersome groups.

2. “Whip up the masses.” Create a “euphoria of hatred”; enwrap your cause in the trappings of a moral crusade and cast those opposed as ‘evildoers’. This is the best way to mobilize crowds and stifle rational reflection and discourse. Frequent references to the Bible and the will of God are useful and serve well. Matthew 10:34, is a good example: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.” To complete the scene, comparisons to Satan incarnate, Adolf Hitler, are helpful. Being all to human, the enemy will usually help. There is no doubt that Sadaam was a natural for the role of Satan incarnate and did all things necessary to carefully prepared for his world stage audition. Remember to assert your own purity of purpose, absence of guile, and righteousness. The ‘Realpolitik’ of oil must be disguised within the veil of the threatened safety of the ‘free world’.

3. “Burn the heretics at the stake.” Brook no dissent and confront any ambiguity lest it cause a rift in your resolve. Any who challenge your position must be marginalized as “unfortunate misguided souls”, at best, or worse, treasonous enemies. The worst enemies of all are “intimate enemies”, like the French, those once held in confidence that are now perceived to have turned on you. Their values must be impugned; they do not share the same sanctity for human life.

4. “Come back with your shield or on it.” Hold tenaciously to the belief that you know what is right. Fight the noble fight. If the United States was wrong, how could it have become so rich and powerful? Our positivist tradition has proven that the American way is the best and only way. We cannot compromise what we know to be right. The American way is not only morally right and blessed by God, but by virtue of our technological and material success, vindicated as the most advanced culture in the evolution of the human specie.

5. “Huff and puff to blow their house down” Begin negotiations with an ultimatum. As an opening gambit, demand the other person with whom you are engaged in controversy to “do it or else.” This, you can be reasonably assured, is calculated to fail and does little other than stiffen the resolve of the other party. This has been aptly demonstrated in the United States’ dealings with both Iraq and Korea in setting pre-conditions even before any discussion is to be considered. The unilateral cessation of nuclear testing or total and immediate disarmament. Keep the time pressure on and the demands unrealistic.

6. Let actions speak for themselves; there is no need for talk and no need for a meddlesome third party. Mediation is just more talk and gives the impression of being weak willed and willing to compromise. Would John Wayne negotiate? He certainly would not tolerate a lot of ‘mamby-pamby’ talk.

7. “It’s all or nothing.” Close off any avenue of retreat; allow no means of ‘saving-face’ Apply the principles of ‘zero tolerance’. Some movement is not enough. Demand an admission of culpability, fault and moral laxness as a condition of surrender. Offer no concession, no matter how trivial, and consider no other options. Set absolute time limits for compliance.

These are the fables of negotiation common to the warrior politics presently in vogue. On the other side of the spectrum, at the humanistic end, there are fables equally enduring. Some think it is enough to merely teach children about ‘peace’ and preach non-violence. Those enraptured by utopian visions of peace in the world can be just as quick to savage people who don’t agree with them as those who are too quick on the draw and ready to shoot first and aim later. Some confuse negotiation with peacemaking and would give-in and settle at all costs to avoid war. Beyond the fables, negotiation need not be viewed as a either a sign of weakness or moral laxity, nor is it a panacea. When practiced diligently, negotiation can offer an effective and principled method of managing difficult people and situations. It requires from the participants authenticity and tenacity, not necessarily trust, cooperation, and reason.

What has been passed off as negotiation and diplomacy in recent months is the stuff of fables. While there is no denying that negotiation is not always warranted or successful in every conflict, there is no justification for dismissing out of hand the potential power of negotiation, done competently, to manage even the most difficult conflicts. With luck, our children will recognize the limitations of learning skills as critically important as negotiation from fables. Those of us who are personally and professionally dedicated to competent negotiation practice have the responsibility to aid that recognition.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in Family Mediation News, published by the Association for Conflict Resolution, Spring, 2003, p. 6-7.

17 May 2003


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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