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Obama The Negotiator: The Strategic Use of Anger

This mornings New York Times, front page headline reads: “Obama Orders Treasury Chief to Try to Block A.I.G. Bonuses,” (Cooper, Helene, March 16, 2009). It follows by a day another article that lays out the dynamics of an important sideshow in the financial mess, the one between the government and the Wall Street execs that apparently feel no shame in claiming their bonuses from a job terribly done, “Bracing for a Backlash Over Wall Street Bailouts,” Nagourney, Adam, March 15, 2009. This economy, which seems to be hurdling toward a depression, is serious business for most of us. One of the few ways to endure the threat of economic catastrophe is to appreciate the event as theater and to be intrigued by how the negotiations are played out, both personally and professionally.

So let me see if I understand: my tax dollar are going to pay for the bailout of the S.O.B.’s at AIG—the huge conglomerate insurance corporation— that profited mightily from the half-assed sub-prime mortgage scam that contributed mightily to the collapse of the economy, and they are giving millions of dollar in bonuses to those slick operators in the financial division?

As a lawyer and mediator, I have been thoroughly trained up in the rationalist thinking frame. I tend to be more inclined to remain calm and dispassionate, always ready to put pencil to paper for an objective “cost-benefit’ analysis, and ever looking for the interests and needs of the parties, and earnestly seeking to steer them away from their worst instinct of positional bargaining. I stand for the principles of settling conflicts in a business like, common sense manner, and looking to the future, not the past. President Obama offered words of wisdom in his address to Congress last month that resonated in both my professional and personal heart: “…in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger….”

BUT, I’M PISSED. These guys don’t deserve a dime. And when I hear how they need to be ‘retained’ because they are “the best and the brightest…..,” I get enraged. My dog Bean’s worried look, who doesn’t know what I’m screaming about, takes it personally and serves to check my total meltdown.

I don’t want to entirely abandon the “Myth of Rationality”—the belief that people can be logical and deliberate in their decision making—seared into my head, but I’m convinced that sometimes a strategically well placed and well timed flash of ‘irrational’ anger is called for, necessary and even useful in negotiation. In any event, I’m not in the mood to be, or even try to be, “a cool headed reasoner.”

Anyway, most peoples’ brains and thinking isn’t the rational, computer like operation they would like to think it is. When I hear about AIG, just like most people, the neuro-chemical reactions in my head are to either try my damndest to ignore the situation, or to fight. Right now, a fight sounds good. With my house foreclosure a potential risk, the idea of those faceless Wall Street smart guys losing their bonus, somewhat soothes me. Revenge, I’ve learned, still has a necessary place as it always has had in human evolution. I realize, of course, that everybody loses in the deal, but at least I could scruff up those greedy bastards a bit. My reptilian brain says force AIG into bankruptcy and let’s see what happens? I’m in no mood to be rational, despite all my training, inclinations and whatever principles I have left.

My brain is not primed to calmly consider negotiation as my first response to the situation. There is no neuro-chemical trigger to be sensible; that requires more deliberate and conscious intentionality than I choose to apply at this moment. Curiously, and perhaps counter-intuitively, bringing about that presumptively more constructive state of mind, as irrational as it might seem, may be best done by allowing my irrationality to play out—at least a bit.

There is a risk in being too rational. In fact, being too rational can be irrational. Conversely, being irrational can be a quite rational. Going after the bonuses of these guys, whether contractually obligated as a legal matter, or not; justified and fair in the larger scheme of things, or not, that act offers me a cathartic sense of satisfaction. It might even serve to deliver a necessary shock to the financial industry. Then, possibly, I could settle down enough to negotiate.

This is more than mere ‘venting.’ Every decision I make, while hopefully somewhat rational, is embedded in emotion. You don’t just vent and then suddenly become all reasonable. There is a constant tension and delicate balance in all negotiations between reason and emotion.

I hope Obama ‘gets it,’ and does not lean too far to the rationalist extreme, like the alien Mr. Spock of “Star Trek” fame. His reasoned and deliberate resoluteness can be re-assuring, but this is no time to remain (outwardly) calm. Right now, in this financial mess, his negotiation strategy needs to be geared toward preserving his credibility by remaining “in sync” (synchronized) emotionally with the public sentiment, and that of a fair number of legislators. He needs to show—even if he has to fake it— some sense of authentically righteous indignation; he needs to take on some of my ‘pissed-offedness,’ and demonstrate a good quality flash of anger. He needs to get a bit crazy. (Maybe there is a lesson to be learned from Iran’s President Ahmadinijad?)


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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