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negotiation: theory

The study of negotiating strategies leads to "game theory" in its various forms (books).
Robert Axelrod - in "The Evolution of Cooperation" looked at variations of zero-sum, negative-sum and positive-sum games, including "The Prisoner's Dilemma". Axelrod found that "Tit for Tat" was normally the most attractive strategy. Where a negotiator starts by cooperating, but reacts to each move of the opposing side by repeating that move.

Others have primarily focused on the use of game theory in conducting war. During The Cold War the Rand Corporation and the Hudson Institute were associated with work on nuclear warfare and the conduct of the Vietnam War. Herman Kahn produced a number of books on the subject in the 1960's including: "On Thermonuclear War", "Thinking About the Unthinkable" and "On Escalation".

Kahn was concerned to document the process of escalation of conflict and to establish common metaphors and language, which could be understood by both sides. Kahn stressed the essential role of communications between opposing sides. He pointed to the cultural problems which made it difficult for the US and North Vietnam to understand the way in which the other side would react to new developments during the Vietnam War.

In "On Escalation" Kahn pointed out the problems that arose between the British and the Germans in World War II because German propaganda failed to clearly communicate German intentions (page 33).

The same problem bedevils the relationship between Israel and the Arabs. At worst we have a "dialogue of the deaf". Normally even during War there will be a dialogue based on mutually agreed rules, POWs will be inspected by the Red Cross and treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention, the warring armies will normally forgo the use of certain weapons, including chemical and nuclear weapons and, "dumdum" bullets, and the rights of civilians will be honored.

Where one side fails to honor the implicit agreement not to behave in a particular manner then the other side will normally feel free to retaliate in ways that it has previously forsworn. The reaction to September 11th is a classic example. Where communication breaks down, as appears to have occurred in Israel, this can result in action and reaction, leading to a spiral of violence and alienation, which can only be resolved by the total collapse of one side, or an understanding by both sides that the mutual interest requires a stepping-back from such actions.

In the US the public protests effectively ended US involvement in the Vietnam War by undermining political support for the war in the US; America was not defeated on the battlefield. The arguments about the Vietnam War now primarily focus on whether the US should ever have become engaged in a struggle in Vietnam, and how the war was actually fought. Escalation of the air war ("Linebacker II" etc.) did not affect the desired results because of limitations on targeting and the wish to avoid entering into direct conflict with China. It is also argued that high intensity bombardment will never successfully win a conflict against a determined opponent, especially one using low-technology systems.

As an aside, public protests or conflict may also be a consequence of actions, rather than the driver behind those actions; the effect rather than the cause. In 1918, Germany, which had lost the military campaign on the Western Front, claimed that the threat of internal revolt forced it to surrender to the Allies and sign the Treaty of Versailles. A myth that was later repeated by Hitler, who wrongly claimed that communists and Jews were responsible for German defeat. The mutiny of the German Navy, and its refusal to sail to certain defeat, occurred when it was clear that the War was lost.

In the case of a company if a negotiation does not work out and it affects the future of the company there may be action by shareholders, financial regulators or other legal agencies.

The negotiator, who will never be required to conduct a thermonuclear war (or so we hope), needs to understand the principles identified in studies by Kahn and his fellows. Even in the most difficult and unpleasant negotiations it is vital to communicate your objectives and intentions clearly, to avoid the fog caused by cultural factors (on both sides) and to avoid taking steps which may result in unpleasant consequences. You must always leave the other side somewhere to go; without losing face.


Another set of ideas that has relevance to negotiation is complexity theory, this has developed from biological studies and now deals with economics and all complex adaptive systems. The Sante Fe Institute is the best known center for complexity studies, although a number of other academic institutions have study programs.

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