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VOL. 127 | NO. 27 | Thursday, February 9, 2012

‘When to Fight’

Harvard prof discusses negotiation strategies

By Bill Dries

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It was perhaps inevitable that when the Harvard Law School professor who is the author of a new book on negotiation came to Memphis, he would be asked about how to get all of the players in the local schools reformation to the table.

Harvard’s Bob Mnookin demonstrates a conflict resolution exercise with Zachary White at White Station High. “If you work in a problem-solving way with your partner, you can create value,” Mnookin said. 
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Robert Mnookin fielded the question – followed by one about negotiating with North Korea – at Rhodes College Tuesday, Feb. 7.

The range of topics reflects Mnookin’s message that his strategy for deciding when to negotiate and when not to has applications beyond the law.

It has applications in families and in foreign relations and in business.

Mnookin’s appearance at Rhodes, part of the college’s “Communities in Conversation” series with the group “Facing History and Ourselves,” was not his only Memphis stop. He spoke Wednesday, Feb. 8, at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law and at White Station High School.

Mnookin, whose two-day stop is his first visit to Memphis, said he was only familiar with the general scenario of schools consolidation, the formation of municipal school districts and the pending state legislation involving the transfer of school buildings and annexation reserve areas.

Harvard Law professor Bob Mnookin speaks to White Station High School students about conflict resolution on Wednesday morning at the school.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“It’s one enormously complicated negotiation where it would be difficult to identify all of the stakeholders, really try to think through what all of their interests are and in a problem-solving way search for ways forward that might involve progress.”

“Bargaining With the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight” is where Mnookin, head of Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation, makes his stand for being what he terms a “negotiation imperialist.”

Mnookin routinely surveys other attorneys on whether they are “adversarial” or “collaborative.” He says most say they can do both and which one they choose depends on what the other side chooses to do.

“You are ceding to the other side the control of how the negotiation goes forward. Imagine a world where most people, in fact, sometimes are collaborative and sometimes are adversarial,” Mnookin added. “And they say what it’s going to depend on is how the other side behaves. That means your behavior, if you are prepared to be a leader, can really influence their approach to negotiation.”

He uses an analogy to lawyers in explaining the “complex mix” of intuition and analysis in deciding whether someone can be negotiated with.

“The intuitive part of ourselves rushes to a judgment,” Mnookin said. “We’ve got a fight … and rather than have the analytic part of our brain really think through carefully the advantages and disadvantages, we hire the analytic part of our brain to be our lawyer and selectively look for facts to justify the intuitive conclusions we’ve already reached.”

He also cautioned that it can be a mistake to assume negotiations are about “haggling” or focusing on pursuit of the same goals. “Usually the opportunities for value are where you can trade off differences,” he said.

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