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Book Review: Bargaining With the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight by Robert Mnookin

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Back in the day there was a book called Getting to Yes: Negotiating Without Giving In and the premise of that book was that negotiation is always the best option. But what if the other party is evil? That is the question that Robert Mnookin poses in his incomparable exposition of crisis decision-making Bargaining With The Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight. Mnookin is a colleague of Roger Fisher, (he is Fisher's successor as chair of Harvard's Program on Negotiation), one of the authors of Getting to Yes, and his book certainly will be of interest to anyone who has studied Fisher's book. But the application of Mnookin's framework is much broader and will be of interest to those who wants to improve their decision-making skills.

There are times in our lives when we face a “devil”: A business partner betrays us and then demands a new, better deal; a collegue steals our idea and gets promoted; a spouse makes extortionist demands in divorce proceedings; the list goes on. In each instance, however, the situation is emotionally supercharged because we have been deeply wronged. In such a moment, the idea that we should even think about whether to negotiate or not may seem incomprehensible. We don't want to give in to our enemies, be perceived as weak or legitimize the enemy's point of view by proposing to bargain with them. At such moments we can only think of revenge or finding a way to have our point of view vindicated. But Mnookin warns us that emotional traps can lock us into bad choices unless we examine our thinking process. Sometimes it is wise to bargain with a “devil.”

Bargaining With The Devil is comprised of eight case studies that cover a broad range of problem situations ranging from international conflicts to business and family disputes. In each situation the stakes are different, some involving matters of life and death, others having family and business relationships in the balance; in each situation the alternatives to negotiation are different, too: while in international disputes no legal remedy is available, in personal and business disputes courts can play a role. In all instances, however, one party is enraged by the actions of another and fighting seems like the best idea. But Mnookin wants us to stop and think outside of the box of habit and distorted thinking, a common theme in all of the cases he analyzes.

In each case study, Mnookin examines the decision process in “real time” rather than through a post-mortem and the benefit of hindsight, an approach that makes the book engrossing and engaging as he examines the situation from the point of view of the decision makers and only what they knew at the time. His purpose in taking this “real time” approach is to examine the actual decision-making process. In cases such as Churchill's decision to refuse negotiating with Hitler, the decision seems obviously right in hindsight, but was it in the context of the time? He examines how Churchill made his decisions, how he balanced emotions and analysis and intuition and how he avoided common traps.

Mnookin proposes a process to help structure decision making in emotionally charged conflict situations. Making a good choice involves solving three problems: 1) avoiding the emotional traps that can lead to a knee-jerk reaction, 2) analyzing the costs and benefits of alternatives and 3) addressing the moral and ethical issues that arise, and they inevitably do, posing a challenge in a situation where a cost-benefit analysis suggests a course of action that is morally repugnant. Not that there are easy answers to this dilemma. Just how much of a challenge this conflict of heart vs. mind poses to a decision maker is shown in the first case study of Anatoly Sharanski, the Soviet dissident; but the theme is interwoven through the remaining seven cases. Mnookin offers a structured way to think about these problems and excavates the decision process by the parties in his case studies but there are no easy answers and Mnookin, like any good teacher, offers us the tools and the examination of the possibilities of their use – choices are in the end our own.

When we are caught between the demands of pragmatism and principle,” he writes, “what we really need to ask ourselves is, To what extent should we look backward and to what extent should we focus on the future? There's often an inescapable tension between achieving justice for past wrongs and the need for resolution. It is another aspect of the Faustian bargain," Mnookin continues. "If you want to resolve the conflict and move forward, you may have to give the devil something you feel he doesn't deserve. This is a bitter pill to swallow.”

Should you bargain with a “devil?” Monnkin's response would be, “Not always, but more often than you feel like it.”

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About A. Jurek

A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org