Would John Wayne Negotiate?

The clock ticks as File:High Noon poster.jpghigh noon looms. Marshall Will Kane, abandoned by his townsfolk and facing overwhelming odds, ponders his next move. Does he board the noon train with his wife or does he stay and confront the man sworn to kill him in revenge for arresting him earlier in life? It wouldn’t be much of a movie if Kane boarded the train and chose “flight” over fight. Instead, he makes his stand, facing certain death. As the quintessential western High Noon proceeds, we learn whether our hero will triumph over seemingly impossible odds. We eat it up.

In 2000, I attended a workshop by mediator and author Robert Benjamin, entitled “Negotiation Lessons from the Movies”. He showed clips from several movies (including High Noon, Braveheart, and Kramer vs. Kramer). He then invited us to explore how negotiation was portrayed in those movies and how they reflected cultural norms regarding collaboration and negotiation. It quickly became apparent that for many people, negotiation shows weakness. After all, John Wayne never negotiated – he fought for what he believed in.

We don’t have to look far to see current examples of that perspective. In this week’s episode of The Good Wife, the featured law firm of Lockhart, Gardner adopted the very aggressive and dangerous tactic of asking a judge to recuse himself. During a strategy session, one of the principals of the firm, Diane Lockhart, encapsulated the competitive philosophy with memorable quote: “When you’re going nuclear, don’t leave any missiles in the silo.” Fifty-eight years after High Noon, the theme of “death before dishonour” persists.

Even the word “collaboration” has negative connotations for some. During a recent workshop we were exploring various conflict styles (compete, avoid, accommodate, compromise and collaborate). One participant found it difficult to ascribe any benefits to a collaborative approach. He had been raised under a fascist regime and the term collaboration held the same meaning for him as it did during World War II – one who aided the enemy and betrayed their nation. Similarly, I worked with a lawyer of middle eastern descent who represented many clients of similar nationality. He stated that his clients would often resist a negotiated settlement and would rather go to court and lose than to be seen as weak by negotiating. The Spartans used to tell their warriors to “come back with your shield or on it”. This presents a challenge for mediators (or those who would negotiate collaboratively): participants often fear that the process itself will result in a loss of face.

What are the implications for those who adopt or support a collaborative approach to conflict? In mediation, for example, those who choose to participate need to be commended for their courage and commitment. They need to be validated for engaging in a process in which they maintain control over the ultimate outcome and which seeks a solution that works for all involved. And most importantly, we need to consider their constituency – those to whom they will be reporting (formally or socially) after the conflict has been resolved. Never underestimate the need of a participant to save face (often with those who are not in the room).

Photo of book Warriors of the HeartIn his thought-provoking book, Warriors of the Heart, Danaan Parry talks about the need to abandon the traditional concept of “hero” (such as Rambo). He introduces the term “Warrior of the Heart” to describe a positive change-maker. These “warriors” have the courage to “know themselves” (including their dark side) and listen to opposing point of view without the need to defend, attack or justify. They have the courage to venture into the unknown and bring newness back to the tribe. Such a mindset is necessary for true conflict resolution as well as personal growth. May we all awaken our inner Warrior of the Heart.

For more information of Danaan’s book and the Earthstewards organization that he founded: http://www.earthstewards.org/

For Robert Benjamin’s article on the portrayal of negotiation and mediation in the movies: http://www.mediate.com//articles/benjamin2.cfm

About Gary Harper, The Joy of Conflict Resolution

Gary Harper is the principal of Harper and Associates. He is a trainer, writer and facilitator who specializes in conflict resolution. Through his unique blend of experience as a personal injury lawyer, general manager, insurance regulator and retail store owner, he learned the value of clear communication and conflict resolution skills. Since 1991 he has trained and mediated in a wide variety of organizations - from health care to the film industry to many levels of government. He is a member of the instructional team of the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the Justice Institute of B. C. and recently authored The Joy of Conflict Resolution: Transforming Victims, Villains and Heroes in the Workplace and at Home.
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