Drama, used sparingly, can work in negotiation

Published in UT San Diego, May 6, 2013

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Pulp Fiction” and “The Godfather”? The dramatic arc of each mutates through fear, anger, threats and ultimately power.

So I began to wonder what the proper role of drama is in the art of negotiation. I have two stories and will disguise the names to protect the innocent.

About two years ago, I traveled a long distance to meet with a Fortune 50 behemoth. Our little company was about to go broke and this was the last, best hope. No deal, no company. In a cold, white room with one window at the far end, there were nine of them and three of us. The meeting started at 8:30 a.m., and after a great deal of nodding, polite conversation, cajoling, reasoning, suggesting, prodding and accommodating, it was clear to me that this was never going to happen. All I wanted to do was go home and give back to my investors whatever money was left and then go hide in a cave in the wilds of Borneo. We were dead meat.

In my mind, I was broken and beaten, and I had nothing to lose. And so at 4:30 p.m. after a particularly frustrating exchange, I stood up and announced to the leader at the far end of this 15-foot-long table, “This meeting is over.” And I walked out.

At that moment, I was the most dangerous individual because I had nothing to lose. And the other side had to consider, that perhaps they did have something to lose. Walking out sends a message. There was a bit more drama over the next few days. In the end, we made a marvelous deal for both sides, and today we are happily in a deep joint venture with multiple millions of dollars on the table for both of us.

But let’s tell the truth. That was a very dangerous move on my part. It could easily have backfired. It was very high risk. The moment was informed by the awareness that our company was effectively dead at that moment and the awareness that we had nothing left to lose. Now, I am not recommending this as a basic negotiation tactic. It comes with the usual disclaimer about don’t try this at home, but sometimes, on those rare occasions, it is an arrow to take from your quiver.

Recently I was in another negotiation with a difficult person. In this one, I said nothing for the first 40 minutes. Our lawyer did 90 percent of the talking and the rest was done by the young CEO. Finally, again, it became clear that we were in a stalemate. This time, I stood up and got in the person’s face and screamed at him, politely informing him that his children would swim with the fishes and that his heart would be roasted on an open spit. And then I left the room.

Again, the moment was informed by my feeling that I no longer cared what happened to the deal. An hour later, I received a text that all sides had agreed, and documents were being drafted.

Now it is important to point out that this high-drama technique needs to be used sparingly. I should also mention that sometimes it has resulted in abject failure and complete disaster, including being advised to insert my head in a strange place.

But in your personal arsenal of entrepreneurship, it is nice to consider drama as a very occasional tool for getting the other side to recognize that you have just made a full and compelling “offer they cannot refuse.”

A scorched earth policy carries big risks, but sometimes if the ground is really hard and barren, well it is always good to carry some lighter fluid.

Rule No. 190: Matches – don’t leave home without them.

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