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Never make it easier to kill you
than to leave you alive ...
you won't like the answer.

Out At The Sharp End

On this page:
Negotiation In Extremis

In my youth I was rather popular with the ladies. Enough so that I would have guys come up to me and -- with some of them -- the following conversation would ensue:
"Animal, what's your secret with women?"
"I listen to them."
<pause >
"No, really. What's your secret?"

In many ways I'm still having this same conversation. Except it is now when people ask me "What's the best system for self-defense?" and I answer "Your ability to negotiate and compromise."

I still get the same blank, non-comprehending look as if I was babbling at them. Although with some people (who want violence to be the answer to all of their life's problems -- especially low self-esteem) they get downright hostile. As in "Gawddamnit! If talking would have worked I wouldn't need to know how to break someone's jaw!" hostile.

Yep. That story is going to have a happy ending. :-/

The simple fact is, I, who have a lot more experience with violence than these people ever will. As such, I:

  1. Know that violence as a tool is of extremely limited use and purpose (and usually it creates an entirely different set of problems)
  2. Understand it's a short term tactic in a long term situation. It is not, in
    and of itself, the solution.
  3. Maintain that I am negotiating until I pull the trigger.

Yes, you read that last part correctly. Until I have to do something that will end another human life, I am trying to find ways to avoid having to do it. Until I have no other choice, I'm looking to create a win/win situation for everyone. And quite frankly, it pisses me off when I can't find some other kind of solution to the problem. That's how serious I am about negotiation.

The reason for this is that I know how ugly, brutal and, most of all, dangerous violence is. And I know the long term cost -- even if you win. Which isn't guaranteed...

But more than that, over the years, I've also discovered how easy it is to avoid having to engage in physical violence. For example, did you know that MOST violence comes with instructions on how to avoid it? If you know the different kinds of violence, you'll also know what to do to avoid getting a beating (1).

But people who aren't into negotiating and compromising have a different agenda. They aren't interested in creating a win/win situation. Their agenda is usually blindly selfish and overly concerned about their emotions, perceptions, fears, pride, social status and self-esteem (either building it or preserving it). In short, they are going for win/lose ... with them being the winner.

You should know, I speak from personal experience about those motivations. Why do you think I got involved in so much violence? In early years those were my motivations. In later years it was my job to tell such people 'no.' (As in 'No, you can't kidnap, rape, torture and kill this woman.') Such people get real cranky when you tell them 'no.'

Below is a blog I wrote about what I call Negotiation:Out At The Sharp End it is a summation of the things I learned living a lifestyle and working jobs that failure to find a working compromise meant that I had to either pull the trigger or break someone's head.

The funny thing is, when the people you are negotiating with know that you- blowing-their- brains-into-a-fine-pink-mist is an option, it's amazing how willing they are to remain reasonable and negotiate a working compromise for everyone.

Negotiation: Out At The Sharp End
In order to truly get this point of the following story, you'll need to realize that I grew up in situational poverty, surrounded by generational poverty. In short, growing up, I learned to think differently than a lot of folks -- especially nice middle class people. A huge part of the process of me getting out of the 'streets' was to learn how to conduct myself like a 'civilian.' Much of this I discovered was learning what NOT to say, but I digress...

Many moons past when I was still learning how to conduct myself as an honest citizen, I was involved with a multi-million dollar business deal. Short version, a training group wanted to come into an existing facility with some specialized training for ... well specialized professions. This was specifically teaching protocols to police and military that would help keep them alive. Simply stated these same protocols were likely to result in some unpleasant person getting his vital fluids splattered on the wall.

The owner of a training facility was amenable to working with our group. The plan was for him to run his normal business, but we'd lease the usage of the facilities on a recurring basis. The deal was approaching not only finalization, but launch. We'd run some test-market training and were very happy with both the classes and the reception within the target market. Yay us ... things were looking good.

So you can imagine our surprise when the facility owner started sabotaging the deal. Whether it was to block program development, double book or renege on agreed on facilities, services and -- most of all --costs, problems were cropping up too often. After a few of these problems, folks started to wonder. But, he insisted the deal was going along just fine ... and then he'd turn around and screw something else up. His favorite ploy was unexpectedly slapping us with a extra cost,  followed by "I wouldn't have agreed to THAT as part of the package. It's very expensive."

In short, if he wasn't trying to outright kill the deal, he was trying to gouge us. His behavior wasn't making him a favorite of our financial backers. It made him even less popular with the folks who'd brokered the deal, because his squirrely behavior was making them look bad in the eyes of the investors. A lot of time and money had been poured into this project and it was rapidly unraveling.

Anyway, before the final implosion, the instructors were in a meeting trying to decide what to do about this guy's behavior. Someone snarled "It's almost as if he's trying to kill this deal." I opened my mouth to speak and suddenly caught myself. I slammed my teeth together and stopped before I said anything. In a room full of cops and military folks, I'd been about to ask:

I take it whacking him is out of the question?

ShutupMarcshutupMarcshutupMarc! I'm not BSing here, in my old neighborhood that IS a viable business solution. Something I learned early was "Never make it easier to kill you than to leave you alive. You won't like the answer." I've seen it happen. Hell, I've known people on both sides of the gun. And from that perspective, this guy was rapidly making it easier for us try to deal with his heirs.

The reason I usually tell people this story is, back then, I had to shut up because everyone would have known I wasn't joking. Even if they were thinking the same, you don't say that in polite company. Well okay, so you can argue that cops and military folks aren't polite. But you still don't say that in business meetings -- especially if you mean it.

FYI, in the end, the guy did end up killing the deal and we walked away. Not only that, but that constellation of instructors and investors broke apart. His behavior destroyed our credibility with the investors. I take comfort in the fact that a few years later the founder of the facility ended up taking control of the facility back from the guy before he ran it into the ground.

Let's fast forward a couple of decades. I was telling the same story to a Lt. Col I know. This guy is so slick he can slide up hill. He told me that I could have said it and gotten away with it. The qualifier was that I would have to tell everyone that I was speaking hypothetically about ALL the options, including that WE walk away from the deal right then. That is one end of the spectrum.

The other end was that we kill him and deal with the new owners. He said that had I framed it that way, I could have gotten away with saying it. The fact is NOW I know that and I could say it and get away with it. Twenty years of polish and conflict negotiation taught me to be more tactful and a lot less scary.

What hasn't changed is, when it comes to conflict, death is always an option.

And not always the other person either, it could be me doing the dying. That is the spectrum that I approach any conflict with. Why? Because I've seen it happen. Knowing this however, instead of being afraid, it calms me down and helps me steer a more reasonable course.

When someone goes into a situation with the sole goal of 'winning' when that doesn't work out, they freak out. They never considered any other option so they don't know what to do. And that is why many situations escalate into violence. The perceived need to 'win' is a lot closer to one extreme. 

But there are others. On one extreme is chaos, killing and bloody violence, except what most people forget on their trip there is that if they take it to that extreme, losing costs a lot more. The often overlooked extreme is drop cargo and BAIL!

That option is usually to prevent the first. Forget 'winning,' there are some circumstances where just being alive after it is over means you've 'won.' The trick is to know when the situation has drifted into these extremes.

See why I take negotiation seriously? I know how easily they can escalate into conflict. And I know how easily conflict can end up in extremes.

Pride vs. Experience
I recently read some research related to a project that I'm doing. The author expressed the opinion that a major motivator in why people stay around 'too long' in dangerous situations is 'pride.' He postulated that people don't believe they can defeat a tidal wave or an avalanche, so they don't have so much pride involved. He argued people are more reasonable about finding a course of action when faced by a force of nature than when confronting a person.

I tend to disagree. Not because I think he's wrong, but because I suspect there's more to the issue than just that. I'm more the school of thought that experience counts. As in if you haven't seen it or experienced it yourself, you don't believe it can happen.

While the obvious example would be Hurricane Katrina, I'm going to use another example. I say experience not only having had my own life on the line, but having studied the subject of how we react to danger and having watched videos of people in places like Beirut, Serbia and now parts of Mexico. Imagine this, a driver is tooling along and all of a sudden a firefight, explosions and all kinds of nastiness starts up right in front of them. What do they do? Now remember these are poor countries where OWNING an auto is a big deal.

The answer is they bail out of the car and run like hell.

Why? Because trying to drive out of urban combat is a really good way to get killed. A car is a much bigger and less mobile target. One, that if you start taking fire while stuck in it, your chances of survival aren't that good. While bullets from a pistol can bounce off cars, slugs from assault rifles can pass right through both doors and still keep going. (Remember, what's between the doors is mostly open space* ).

Now you might think 'okay, so I got that one wrong. I'm not that familiar with guns and I don't live in a place where battles in the street are common. But I'd know what to do in other circumstances."

Not necessarily. I'm sitting less than three blocks away from where a High School student was hit by a train. Long story short, on the way to school, at a red light, she drove onto the tracks, when the RR Xing guards came down she panicked and stalled her car. Now mind you that the alarms start going off when the train is a half mile or so away. So it wasn't like the train snuck up on her. She was still sitting in the car trying to get it restarted when the train hit her. This poor kid lived.

My point is that with beaucoup tons of train barreling down on her, she refused to abandon her car. She nearly died, trying to save the car. Here is a nice, middle class kid who had NEVER seen violent death and in all likelihood had never herself been in danger. Is she stupid? No. In fact, she was extremely smart, popular and socially adept -- within a particular social strata. Until that day she existed in a world where disasters were not only something that happened to other people, but always on the TV. She is permanently confined to a wheelchair now because -- in a crisis -- she insisted on maintaining certain priorities. Priorities that put her sitting in a car as a train slammed into it.

The reason I told you these two stories is to show you how what you think and feel can blind you to what is going on -- especially during a negotiation that not only isn't working out but has floated into being something else.

Now when I say that when I am dealing with a conflict death and abandoning things are on the table, I want you to realize that if a situation has escalated to conflict, things aren't going well. But that doesn't mean it still isn't a negotiation. In fact, if I can bastardize Clausewitz, a conflict is negotiations carried on by different means.

Except, the deeper you get into conflict, the more it isn't about what the original issue was anymore. And further afield you get, the closer you get a point where the guy isn't negotiating anymore... if he was ever at all. I tend to look at negotiations and all the mutations that can arise from it more along the lines of a color spectrum.


Okay, so negotiation isn't exactly in the middle ... that's more because I suck as a graphic artist than that I'm trying to imply anything. The point here is that you can float FROM negotiation into different areas. And if you're in your monkey brain you won't realize that the moorings have slipped and you are now in a totally different territory.

In MOST situations, farther away from 'negotiation' you get, the LESS rational it becomes. Oh yeah, going the other way, 'Bullying is getting what you want carried on by other means too.' Because it's hard to discuss all the variables in written form, I'll just refer to conflict from now on.

Here's where it gets complicated, if dropping into your monkey brain can happen to you, it can happen to the person you are negotiating with too! Any 'negotiation' can go sideways when one or the other parties begins to float into these mental states.

Oh, BTW, when I say that when I'm negotiating that 'bailing out' or 'causing carnage' are still on the table, that isn't exactly accurate. At least not in the sense that I'm going to unexpectedly (and for no good reason) lunge across the table and bite someone's throat out. When I (and everyone else) is firmly entrenched in the 'green zone' of negotiation, then those extremes really aren't even on the horizon. Sure theoretically they're there, but in reality they are OVER the horizon and far away. Now if we travel in that direction, they'll come in view. But as long as everyone stays back in the green zone the reds of extremes aren't an issue.

Now I'm going to change tracks for a second and tell you a fundamental rule my wife and I have about our relationship. That is: Only one of us gets to be crazy at a time. It's a pretty good rule.

For example anytime we have a negotiation that is heading out of the 'green zone,' it usually means that one of us is getting emotional. Now instead of reacting in kind, the person who recognizes that this-is-a-bigger-button-with-the-other-person will step back and say 'Whoa! It's time to return to rational.' That means it's time to take a break and cool off. Both of us come from relationships where that behavior was not practiced and we've learned why it is important to recognize when one or the other is slipping out of the green (or in the case of several of my ex's, it was ALWAYS their turn to be crazy).

So, the first rule of keeping a situation in the green of negotiation is to recognize WHEN it the shading has changed. And that means recognizing it within the other person AND -- perhaps even more importantly -- within yourself.

The reason it is important, is the further you allow yourself (or the other person) to head toward the horizon, the closer you get to those extremes. In fact, once you read the next part you'll understand this point better. If you aren't monitoring your own emotional state, you can easily travel over the horizon and end up in an extreme without even realizing it.

Or even more common, you'll blind yourself to the fact that the other person is in that extreme zone. You may still be in the conflict zone and he's moved into the extreme.  A really important indicator of your monkey brain (and yes I strongly suggest you follow the link) taking over is when you feel the situation has to be resolved ...


In case you didn't notice, I sort of emphasized that point. If you believe it has to be resolved now, if you believe that you have to 'win,' if you believe that the world will end if you don't get your way ... the monkey is driving the bus.

Unfortunately, as you may have noticed driving to work today, there are a LOT of monkeys behind the wheels. Still people who are locked in their monkey brains are more fixated on winning and doing it now than coming to a reasonable and win/win compromise.

The most important thing you need to realize about our monkey brains is emotions are contagious. As a survival mechanism your monkey brain is designed to go ape-poo when someone else's does. Think about this as a survival tool. There you are as a cave man or woman and all of sudden 'George' comes busting out of the bushes in wide eyed terror and heading hard and fast towards a tree. Are you going to live long enough to breed if you say "I say, old George seems to be in a bit of a tizzy eh what?"

NO! Because whatever is chasing George is going to eat you instead! In fact, courtesy of these contagious emotions, you're going to be doing your best to pass ol' George so whatever is behind him is still his problem.

If someone else flips, our instincts are to go with them. But as Richard Conniff said in his excellent book The Ape in the Corner Office, "Our brains and our repertoire of social behaviors have expanded enormously over the course of our evolution, and it is a shame to ignore all that." Just because our monkey brain is designed to go along for the ride doesn't mean we have to follow this pattern. We CAN use other parts of our brains to function.

Remember, your emotional monkey brain is very much in the 'now.' But not necessarily in a good way. It can imagine all kinds of horrible things that it decides are immediate threats. Not that it 'could happen' but that it is happening now and only going to get worse. Worse that is unless you do something RIGHT NOW to
a) stop it,
b) win,
c) regain your status
d) get revenge
e) some or all of the above ...
your monkey is convinced that Armageddon is at hand. It's not, but the monkey believes it.

What commonly happens in a negotiation that turns into a conflict is that everybody's monkey brain gets 'lit up' and things start to spiral out into left field. BTW, you've probably seen this at work too. Where you walk into a meeting and the next thing you know people are swinging from the lights, hooting, screaming, attacking the environment and slinging fecal matter. You walk out of the meeting going "What the hell just happened?" Watch video of primate conflict and you'll see the patterns except instead of chimps, it's humans behaving that way with only a little more subtlety. That's what happens when monkey brains take over.

Oh incidentally, when your monkey brain is driving the bus ... it's ALWAYS self-defense. According to that part of your brain, any nasty, rotten, hurtful thing you said or did was only to defend yourself from the evil attacking other monkey. When you've broken up as many fights as I have you gotta wonder why both parties are absolutely convinced that it was a) self-defense and b) the other dude started it.

They're not making it up either, they honestly believe it. The problem with this however, is that the video and witnesses see two guys who were both equally guilty in the creating, escalation and participation of a 'fight.' Their monkey brains were in full swing**

See why only one of you gets to be crazy at a time? Otherwise it floats over the horizon to extremes.

And yes, even though you might not ever have been to the extremes, that doesn't mean the other person in the conflict hasn't. Nor does it mean he isn't willing to go there again. Sitting in a business meeting my roots were nearly revealed. Keep this in mind as you enter into any negoations. Because -- if it stops being a negotation and turns into something else AND if it looks like the guy is going into an extreme -- it's a smart thing to stop thinking about bailing out of the situation  and DO IT!

If you're not willing kill or be killed over something, then dropping cargo and getting the hell out of Dodge IS the best option on the table. And even if you are willing to go to the other extreme, bugging out is still an option. That other extreme is no small thing, I've bailed out of many a situation because it wasn't worth pulling the trigger. (Besides, I hate paperwork.)

As Tom Cochrane said in the song "The secret is to know when to stop."

Learn to spot when it's left the green zone and take a break. It will save you a LOT of grief.

The second secret about negotiation is to know when it isn't. In any situation you have two people who have different goals. Imagine them as circles. Now when those circles overlap to some degree or the other, you have the potential to negotiate and come to win/win situation. An example is the seller wants to sell for as much as possible, but will settle for (fill in the blank). A buyer wants to buy for as low as possible, but will go as high as (fill in the blank). As long as there is overlap there exists the possibility for negotiation. A negotiation is where BOTH parties walk away satisfied because they got what they wanted. Keep that in mind, it is important.

Another point to bear in mind is the thinner the overlap, the harder it is to get to a successful conclusion. Let's use buying a car for example. Someone has a car you want. But he wants way more money than you want to spend. His rock bottom price is the maximum you want to spend. You can still reach an accord, but it's going to be a whole lot more work. And odds are, the negotiations are going to break down.

If we're smart, we'll do our best to go out and find places where the overlap is greater rather than less. The greater the overlap, the easier the negotiations and the happier everyone will be afterwards. In other words, don't be afraid to walk out the door. Not as a bluff, but heading off to give someone else your money in exchange for something you want.

Now here's the bear: Sometimes there is NO overlap.

That means that the goals of both parties are so far apart there is NO chance for negotiation and compromise. This blows the hell out of the often parroted ideal that 'anything' can be negotiated and compromise reached. Not only no, but hell no. The everything can be negotiated and a reasonable compromise worked out is a happy, happy, joy, joy warm fuzzy idea. One that only works if your idea of 'roughing it' is when the line at Starbucks is too long. (Translation: among people who've only operated in their monkey bran, NOT in their lizard brain.)

A key element to negotiation is to realize when it is isn't. Know how to spot when that guy over there has absolutely no interest in coming to a viable resolution. That is to say one where everyone comes out a winner.

When you don't have that, you have a win/lose situation. As far as he's concerned he wins, you lose. That's it. That is not a negotiation, that's conquest. And you need to know when that IS someone's goal. Because now you're in extremes.

While we're at it, let's deflate another popular myth, that of "Down deep, we all want the same thing." Unless down deep the speaker wants to rob, rape, kill or slaughter anyone not of his or her tribe, then that is not true. There are a lot of folks in this world who believe, if you aren't of their tribe, then it's open season on you and yours. Can you negotiate with these people? Sure. But you have to be willing to kill them, their families and their entire tribe if they break the deal ...because, if you aren't, they will break it. Why shouldn't they? If you aren't willing to do this, then you are too weak for them to deal with as equals. And in their world there are only predators and food.

Trying to come to a 'reasonable' win/win outcome with these people is somewhat ... problematic.

Changing tracks again: I have a common answer when people who are having trouble with a stalker or an obnoxious neighbor, ask me "Is he dangerous?" My answer is "Not to me, but he is to you." That's because I can look at someone and immediately tell how far towards the horizon he (or to be honest, 'she') is. And where ever the troublesome person is, odds are I've been further down that way. And I can go that way again. So if I have to deal with him, I know that instead of playing catch up to his extremes, I'll instead meet him on my way back from mine. And I'll have more steam. ***

Now believe it or not, the willingness to blow someone's brains into a fine pink mist can be a form of negotiation. Most people think I'm talking about bullying but I'm not. I'm talking about negotiating IN the extreme. But we're not negotiating how much something is, does the toilet seat get left up or down. Nor are we talking 'does the toothpaste get squeezed from the middle of the tube or the bottom.' While we're at it, it's not even a I win/You lose pseudo-negotiation (where the other guy is pretending to negotiate). We really ARE negotiating.

In fact, we're negotiating a win/win situation. It's a walk away and everyone gets to live. Implicit in the contract is 'you stay away, I will too and we'll not see each other again.' That's because 'if I ever see you again, I'll just assume it's self-defense and start shooting.' And yes, there are times when superior firepower IS an invaluable tool in negotiations. But once again, that's REALLY a matter of being able to recognize when you're NOT in the green zone -- but are instead out in the extremes.

What's more is you don't even have to be emotional, just recognize when the other person is that far out. Believe it or not, you can function out in the extremes rationally and calmly. (The trick is knowing how to articulate why it was necessary, but that's another blog.)

Interesting things will begin to happen when you understand these two aspects about negotiations. One is how much easier negotiations will become. There is just something about the body language of someone who understand extremes are always possible that tends to keep a damper on them.

That's because people usually go to extremes in order to 'win.' The simple fact is that 'winning' isn't everything, but they think it is. In fact, a lot of people have learned that being the most extreme is a good way to 'win' when the other person is negotiating. Again this isn't negotiating, it's barely disguised conquest.

Unfortunately, you'll see many conflicts are are two people trying to win and that's why things escalate. BUT, once someone else is willing to rationally go there too, the dynamics change. To them the extreme isn't about winning or losing. It's about damage control and ending an untenable situation.

The person who is operating towards those goals has a strategic advantage over the person trying to 'win.' If nothing else, that person can just walk away.

The second is you'll find yourself not wasting your time with people who are only pretending to want to negotiate.

The simple fact is a lot of folks are relying on you believing the 'down deep we all want the same' and 'we can come to a working compromise.' As long as you approach them from that paradigm, then they have the advantage, because that ISN'T what they are about. They are about them winning and you losing ... but they aren't going to tell you that. What they will start doing is demanding more and more or changing the terms of the deal (think the facility owner).

Once you know this possibility is on the table, you'll be able to spot it. And knowing what it is, you'll be able to shift tactics accordingly.

Third is once you realize that whether or not they are in view, those extremes are still over the horizon, you'll be less hot-to-trot to go there. If you choose to give into your own monkey brain, then you're the one who is taking things closer to the extreme. And if you do it with the wrong person, there will be blood.

If you do it with others, they will take the other extreme and you'll be left alone. People who want to negotiate win/wins, don't like hanging out around people who are into win/lose.

Understanding the wider scope of options can really help you stay calm in an emotional situation. And if you can do that, you can really do wonders for keeping it from escalating into a conflict -- even if the other person's monkey brain is driving the bus.


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1) The problem is when someone says "You better get out of here or I'll kick your ass" all someone else's monkey brain often hears is "I'll kick your ass!" They lose everything before that. Worse, their emotions, pride and fear of losing social status keep them there. You were told how to avoid it, and you're now doing the exact opposite of that. Return to Text  

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