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Of War and Negotiation: Part 2: The Passion Play – Tolstoy’s War and Peace

Link to Part 1

Part 1

“Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Bonapartes. But I warn you, if you don’t tell me that this means war, if you still try to defend the infamies and horrors perpetrated by that Antichrist—-I really believe he is Antichrist—I will have nothing more to do with you and you are no longer my friend….”
(1805 Book One, Chapter 1. Anna Scherer’s soiree, War and Peace, p. 3.)

So begins Tolstoy’s masterpiece with Anna Pavlovna Scherer remarking to Prince Kuragin at her soiree in Moscow in 1805, her view of the then current Napoleonic rampage through Europe that was soon to be directed toward Russia. The tone of that conversation was not so different from one I had with ‘Anne’, a modern day stand-in for Tolstoy’s Anna, at a petite soiree—a holiday open-house— 202 years later and half a world away in Portland, Oregon.

Within moments of meeting Anne, having revealed that I teach and practice law and negotiation, although I am not sure any prompting was necessary, she felt compelled to share the most intimate details or her marriage and ‘horrible,” “worst of the worst,” “ you won’t believe this” divorce in progress. For a full 15 minutes, almost without a breath, she shared fragments and details in no particular order, of her husbands’ past and present transgressions. She concluded, not surprisingly, with graphic stabs at what she felt justified and obligated to do to him in and out of court. While Anne was not talking about the Napoleonic horrors that disturbed Anna two centuries before, the hatred and desire for revenge against her husband were the same. Only the name of the evil doer and the particulars of the infamy had changed.

Most conflicts, regardless of the circumstances or context, follow the same script, be they personal, geo-political, or business disputes. In one way or another, their substance is about money, property, power and control, or truth, honor, and justice. The character casting, drawn from the original passion play, are, of course, clearly drawn between the hero/victim and the antagonist evil-doer, or Antichrist. More refined and complex scripts realistically blur the lines between the sacred and profane and force forward the awareness of the ambiguity of the roles. As often as not, there is a tragic hero and a heroic scoundrel. While nuanced variations must be taken into account for cultural idiosyncrasies and historical accident, the best conflict scripts play as well in Iowa as they do in Sarajevo. They concern, after all, the same vagaries of human heart and condition that have been the bread and butter of great writers, historians and theologians since the beginning of time as they have sought to alternatively report, understand, or make sense of the events surrounding them. So, whether it is Anne in Portland’s in her monologue against her evil husband, or Vice President Dick Cheney in one of his many tirades against ‘Islamofascists,” the words, sentences, and constructed realities are largely the same. A playback of some of Anne of Portland’s dialogue is a useful, if only to evoke the emotion and visceral affect of her response to conflict and to properly set the stage for a discussion about war and negotiation. Her palpable anger is characteristic of those embroiled in a dispute, whether openly expressed or choked back in a more passive-aggressive manner.

Without taking a breath, she recounted how, “Instead of a toast, he announced at our 21st Anniversary Party that he’s filing for a divorce—-right there in front of our children and my parents…..I knew he was messing around with this young floosie associate who began working in his law firm last year, but for the sake of our children, I just hoped it would pass. I gave him the best years of my life…I put him through school and he just cast me aside like an old shoe… he humiliated me. I don’t deserve that. When I found out about the affair, I wanted to kill him; I admit to having thought about it. I’m goint to get the toughest attorney in town and take him for every penny. You can’t negotiate with someone like that. Anyone who would betray and lie to you like he did can’t be trusted. I thought I knew him; now I can see him for what he really is. He is just plain evil. I won’t be played for a fool again. All he does is take advantage of people….you can tell if he’s lying if his mouth is open.

Like most guests, being drafted and cornered as a captive audience of one for her performance, I had little alternative except to listen dutifully while plotting an escape. Soon, however, I found myself intrigued. Probably not unlike an entomologist’s fascination with the behavior of ants under attack, I began to listen more closely; not so much with the particulars of the storyline, but for clues about how, if at all, it might be possible to shift and re-direct her anger and frustration. She exhibited the classic signs of a shell-shocked combatant, reflexively and numbly continuing to battle her own fears as much as a real enemy, in ways that were as likely as not to prove self defeating. She, like many people lost in conflict, had been sucked in by the allure of war. She saw no alternative except to strike back.

It would be easy for me to be patronizing, or even to ridicule and dismiss Anne’s display of emotion as little more than amusing material for a story about another ‘crazy’ person. If she goes on too long or is too outrageous, then she risks being labeled as pathologically possessed and marginalized completely. But I know better. I have learned the hard way that Anne is not alone. I remember with a cringe more than a few times where my response to a difficult situation was less than admirable. And, this was so despite my considerable study and training as a professional negotiator. The gap was sizable between my actual behavior and the facade of civility, calmness, and rationality that I made an effort to maintain. I have often thought it is just my own special hypocrisy and pretense, but I have watched not a few of my professional conflict management colleagues similarly shed their professed beliefs when they were personally confronted by a difficult situation.

The inescapable conclusion is that we are all susceptible to being overwhelmed by conflict and drawn in by the allure of war, regardless of background and training. And that allure is compelling; it is the notion that threats and attacks require a direct and immediate counter attack. Revenge is a part of it, and sometimes, while controversial as to when, war is a practical necessity. A significant part of the allure, however, is culturally, historically conditioned, and neuro-biologically programmed into our brain chemistry. It is a visceral human response that is part of our evolutionary psychology and hard to close down. Having the right words on the tip of your tongue at the right time, to slice through the abject rudeness of an offender, or better yet, the ability to ‘punch out’ a transgressor who has done an injustice—without thought of consequence—-is the fantasy of most people and the script of a fair number of films. The response is simple, uncomplicated, and final. It requires no second thought or reflection. While retreat or avoidance of a perceived threat is common to many, the desire for a fight is often just behind a thin veil.

An act of war can take a variety of forms short of actual militaristic or physical aggression; legal action or displays of power by extra-legal action, are unilateral acts done to compel or coerce another person’s behavior. War has greater appeal than other modes of conflict management, especially those of the negotiative variety, such as dialogue, discussion or negotiation. They are obviously available, but not as easily or readily pursued or preferred. They require reflection, discipline and skill. Mostly, however, in comparison to war, negotiation appears to be limp and ineffectual, requiring endless talk and carrying the risk of being played for a fool.

So, for Anne, as she thinks about how to deal with her jerk husband, or Anna, in thinking about the Antichrist Napolean, or Cheney in thinking about Iraqi President Sadaam Hussein, this is a critical moment. There is nothing, per se, wrong with ranting—-it may even be helpful—-but she and they must decide how they will choose to engage and manage the conflicts at hand. That choice will determine how much stress, torment, financial expense and time will have to be endured in the subsequent months or years. The question is, could someone sufficiently gain her attention long enough to distract her away from the allure of war, and nudge her to consider some edits of the script of her passion play so as to allow for a different result? And, if that is possible, how might it best be done? Specifically, how might she, or others in conflict, come to find negotiation as alluring as warfare as a mode of conflict management?

Over the years, I have tried various tacks to engage and encourage those like Anne who are immersed in conflict to re-consider a less warlike stance in favor of a more thoughtful approach with varying degrees of success. They are generally based on reasoned arguments; one is an appeal to being practical and pragmatic, and the other, to the humanist or moral notion of doing “the right thing.” Paul Valery, an early Twentieth Century French philosopher, remarked that “between men there are only two relations: logic or war.” Like all aphorisms, it risks closing as many doors to thinking as it opens.

The limits of logic. One of the most common approaches is an appeal to logic. Believing in the power of reason, I would calmly and dispassionately seek to encourage Anne to to apply a ‘cost-benefit’ analysis to her chosen course of litigation as compared to a negotiated settlement. Some are able to make the shift and ‘listen to reason;’ after some struggle they come to realize that they need to move-on. But appeals to reason and logic are often of limited use. Many people are not responsive to those approaches. While she might flash fleeting glimpses of reflection with comments about how “both of us share some blame,’ the retreat back to a defensive posture of the script is quicker.

While worth the effort, logic and reason have not proven to be a surefire way of diverting or combating the war allure. Even painting as vivid a picture as possible of the wasted time, energy and money, and the risks to the children, of a drawn out battle, often will not dent the armor of one who is wounded and sworn to pursue justice and fairness at all costs. Reason is no match for emotion, and it cannot trump what appears to be the sweetness of the imagined victory.

Do the right thing. Another common approach that has a moral foundation, is the humanist appeal to do the “right thing” for the sake of the children or to be a better person. It works sometimes and should not be cast aside lightly. For most ‘Annes,’ however, caught in the throes of a difficult dispute, it is hard to counter the desire for revenge with an appeal for forgiveness. While she is concerned about the ‘best interests of her children’ (a vague and suspect term), she often cannot distinguish her own welfare from that of the childrens’. If “he” can treat her so unfairly, surely he will do the same to the children. forgiveness is not an option, certainly not in the early stages.

When the most obvious arguments fail, I am prone like many others, to believe that my inability to gain a foothold with someone like Anne is because she has some kind of pathological personality disorder that blocks her ability to see reason and to conclude that she is incapable of negotiating. That is in part the result of working within a culture that places a high premium on the appearance of being reasonable and rational. I have been taught to cloak myself in a detached and objective demeanor and viewing those who do not or cannot, as uncivil at best, and at worst, aberrant. Professional education and training conditions the expectation and assumption that all matters are solved by reasoned analysis and persuasive argument. Contrary to Valery’s faith in enlightened reason, logic alone does not provide enough force to navigate the strong currents of emotion generated by most conflicts.

Tolstoy’s War and Peace, offers a valuable study of the human response to conflict and the interplay of warfare and negotiation. It allows an opportunity to re-think how negotiation might be more effectively presented as a viable and realistic mode of conflict management that is as attractive and powerful as warfare. War, as the first choice for dealing with conflict, is not an immutable or inevitable proposition. However, shifting the cultural frame of thinking requires a careful understanding of the allure of war, and a careful scrutiny of the nature of negotiation. Too often, there is not a clear understanding of the interplay and cross-over between war and negotiation. It may well be that negotiation can usefully borrow from the strategies and techniques or warfare, and wars, to the extent they must occur, benefit from the understanding of negotiative processes. This merging is, in fact, already beginning to occur. The re-thinking requires consideration of the following points:

First, war and negotiation are not polar opposites, as they are so frequently presented. They inform each other as modes of conflict management and the best warriors must be effective negotiators and the best negotiators must study warfare strategies and techniques.

Second, war holds a powerful allure that is too often denied or minimized. Peoples’ instinct is to believe they can fight their way out of problems. Fighting, in all it’s forms, whether all out warfare and armed action, or by lesser, but still wasteful forms, such as litigation, are designed to force unilateral compliance. That allure is deeply embedded in our brain chemistry and evolutionary psychology, and reflected in our cultures, religions and histories and must be thoroughly appreciated and understood if it is be altered and supplanted with more constructive modes of conflict management.

Third, there remains a strong resistance to negotiation, especially as it is currently presented and practiced. Even though people are capable of being collaborative and negotiation is a primary means by which that cooperation occurs, historically, negotiation has not been a preferred first alternative to settling conflict. For the most part, people remain unfamiliar with negotiation and lacking in any systematic understanding of basic strategies, techniques and skills, and being constrained to thinking that negotiation can only be done by reasonable people. Historically, negotiation has been done as much by enemies as by friends. Too many continue to think of negotiation as a murky, endless process of talk, without result; that the willingness to negotiate is a sign of weakness; or worse, a morally suspect and sleazy activity that requires the compromise and ‘selling-out’ of ones’ principles.

Fourth, there is a more confident, active and affirmative approach to negotiation that is emerging that constructively incorporates the strategies and techniques of warfare into negotiation without compromising the principles of informed and consensual decision making. This ‘guerrilla’ negotiation is based on affective decision making that requires consideration of risks and alternatives with an integrated emotional and analytical frame Specifically, if negotiation can be presented as a realistic, efficient, and powerful mode of conflict management, then its’ acceptance as a viable form of conflict management will be furthered.

January 7, 2008

Next: Part 3: Dissecting The Allure of War


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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