History of Negotiation

To develop a better, more grounded understanding of negotiation, we are first going to look back to negotiation’s historical origins. We will then examine three case studies of historical figures who used negotiation skills to effect great, positive change.

Origins of Negotiation: From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century

Figure 1.3: Bargaining in the marketplace is a form of negotiation.

Image by Clarene Lalata via Unsplash.

If we follow the etymological roots of the word negotiation, we can trace it back to the Latin phrase negare otium, which translates literally as “to deny leisure.” According to anthropologists, the actual behavior of negotiation goes back at least 200,000 years before that to the very origins of our species. From an anthropological framework, early humans were no different from us in that they lived in conditions of scarcity. They had to bargain with one another in order to better ensure their own survival and that of those they cared about. Not every primitive human being was capable of coming up with radical solutions to unforgiving environmental conditions and shortages of food. In these circumstances, they were required to devise means of communicating productively in order to strike deals and exchange value with other primitive humans for their mutual benefit. In the greater picture, this was for the continuation of our species. This is something that, whether we are conscious of it or not, we still carry on in our own day-to-day lives as we strive for success.

Leaders Are Negotiators and Collaborators

It turns out, we don’t have to look any further than our recent history in order to get a true sense of how powerful negotiation can be politically, economically, socially, and even personally. Part of the reason for this is that many of the most influential figures of the past were able to be that influential because of their ability and willingness to negotiate for themselves and for others. In this section, we will look at three key historical examples of individuals who used negotiation not only to better their own circumstances and the circumstances of others, but to change the whole course of history.

Nelson Mandela and South African Apartheid

Figure 1.4: Nelson Mandela.

Image © copyright John Mathew Smith, 2001, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Of his long list of enduring accomplishments, what the late Nelson Mandela will be most remembered for are his capabilities as a negotiator and how he used those capabilities to effect positive change in his society. Robert H. Mnookin, a professor at Harvard Law School, considers Nelson Mandela to be “the greatest negotiator of the 20th century.” This statement comes from his book about negotiation titled Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight. In the book, Mnookin cites Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary patience, perseverance, practicality, and judiciousness: “He was willing to make concessions, but not about what was most important to him. With respect to his key political principles, he was unmovable,” Mnookin writes.1

Furthermore, Mnookin believes that Nelson Mandela was only able to have the effect that he had on systemic racism and injustice in South Africa because he was able to negotiate not only with his allies but also with his adversaries, those who were most opposed to his ideas for what society should be. Mnookin writes that “[Mandela] ultimately achieved through negotiation an outcome that could never have been accomplished solely through violence or resistance.”2

Ultimately, Mandela was only able to bring his ideas to fruition because he was willing to negotiate with the very regime that had attempted to imprison him for life due to his criticisms of apartheid. The lesson we can take away from this is that in many ways, the most meaningful change does not come from digging our heels into our own position. We must be willing to communicate our ideas and discuss them even with those who are opposed to us.

President Obama and the US Tax System

Soon after he was reelected in 2012, President Barack Obama indicated in his comments to the press that he was open to the idea of forgoing a tax increase on the most affluent two percent of Americans. This was part of a plan he was developing with Congressional Republicans in order to prevent the country from falling off of what economists and tax law experts referred to as a “fiscal cliff.”3 In these negotiations, President Obama attempted to reconcile the mounting financial pressures facing the United States with Congressional Republicans’ two seemingly contradictory positions of demanding that the deficit be reduced while also being unwilling to support legislation that would implement any new taxes.4 After a few weeks, President Obama turned his position around and indicated that he was unwilling to consider any legislation that did not raise taxes on America’s top earners. In direct response, many Congressional Republicans stated they too were unwilling to compromise. Behind closed doors, there were reports of some Republican leaders begrudgingly weighing a “fallback position,” which consisted of legislation to extend tax cuts for the middle class while putting off the more contentious negotiations over taxes and spending until later in 2013.

Figure 1.5: President Barack Obama addresses a joint session of Congress.

Image by Pete Souza, February 24, 2009, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

What this example indicates is how in this instance, compared to President Obama and the Democrats, the Republicans had a more difficult position to bargain from. According to polls taken at the time, a majority of Americans were in full support of tax increases for the top two percent of America’s wealthiest individuals, and the Republicans knew they would be more to blame if serious economic consequences stemmed from their inability to deal with the mounting national debt.5 Furthermore, according to legislation, the consequences would involve triggering a series of spending cuts and Clinton-era tax codes, both of which would be less onerous to the Democrats than to the Republicans.6

In the end, the GOP-led House passed a modified version of President Obama’s fiscal crisis legislation through a 257–167 vote. From this example, we can see that a negotiation process is never straightforward, and for your success in negotiations, it is imperative to have a firm grasp of both your ideal outcome and strong alternatives in order to prepare for all eventualities.

Thomas Edison and Edwin C. Barnes

Children across the United States, and indeed around the world, are taught the story of Thomas Edison from a young age. But if they want to know more about the power of negotiating, they would be wise to also learn the story of his assistant, Edwin C. Barnes. As a young man, Barnes was poor, had no technical training, and yet dreamed of one day becoming the partner of Thomas Edison—who at that time was already renowned for his incredible inventions. To materialize this dream, in 1905, Barnes took a train to West Orange, New Jersey, where he visited the famous Edison Laboratory. In spite of his humble clothes and appearance, he told Edison that he wanted to work for him. There were members of the laboratory who scoffed at Barnes, but Edison was not one of them. As Edison would later report, he saw in Barnes a genuine determination to be a part of growing his company.7

Edison told Barnes that if he really wanted to be a part of the laboratory, he could sweep the floors. And perhaps to the great inventor’s surprise, Barnes accepted on the spot. This was not a bad negotiation on Barnes’s part. While it may seem like he was being offered much less than he initially came to West Orange hoping to get, Barnes knew that Edison was giving him the chance of a lifetime. Not only would he get to see up close how Edison came up with his ideas and developed them, but he would also have the opportunity to meet Edison’s associates and friends. Some of them were among the most well-connected, powerful people in the country.8 Not to mention, this could be Barnes’s one chance to prove to Edison that he was worthy of being his partner.

Despite his humble status in the laboratory, Barnes took his role as floor sweeper with utmost seriousness and never forgot his purpose in being there.9 Each day, he observed Edison in order to develop a sense of what made the great inventor tick. Barnes was also plotting how he could most persuasively communicate his ideas to Edison.

Figure 1.6: Thomas Edison using his dictating machine in 1907.

Image by Unknown, 1907, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

After nearly two years of patient observation and strategizing, Barnes found the opportunity he’d been waiting for. Edison had been hard at work on his dictating machine—a device which could record audio onto a wax cylinder and play it back—and he was ready to commercialize it. However, the sales team of Edison’s laboratory expressed skepticism as to whether this new invention could be a commercial success.10 Barnes, on the other hand, immediately recognized the value that Edison’s invention could have if it were properly marketed. To him, this device could give executives the power to dictate their ideas and thoughts at any time, day or night. The device would eliminate the need to have a stenographer or secretary at hand to record the executive’s thoughts for later playback.

Barnes voiced his opinion to Edison and presented him with a plan to advertise and distribute his dictating machine across America. Edison was so impressed with Barnes’ proposal and his enthusiasm that he gave Barnes the exclusive rights to sell and distribute the device in and around Chicago. In a matter of months, Barnes managed to sell thousands of these “talking machines.” In fact, he was met with a demand so great that he had to establish his own firm, Edwin C. Barnes & Brothers, in order to keep up with new orders for Edison’s device. Barnes did not stop there, though. After his successes in the Chicago area, Barnes lobbied Edison to be given room to expand into other states.11 In 1917, Barnes was granted control of sales in the New York and St. Louis markets.

As we can see, part of what made Barnes such an intelligent, strategic negotiator in this case was his ability to have a creative and long-term sense of value in negotiating for a position at Edison’s laboratory. Had he taken a more short-term approach, Barnes might have balked at the prospect of working as Edison’s floor sweeper when he considered himself capable of being an equal partner to Edison. However, Barnes was willing to take a less desirable position in the short term, knowing full well that the long-term benefits would be far greater than anything he could possibly achieve on his own.

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