Last year, I wrote about The Lost Art Of Diplomacy. In that post, I hinted at a concept I would like to discuss in greater detail today: society's steady deterioration in its ability to negotiate.

Selling Guitars On Craig's List
From time to time, I sell old personal items on CraigsList.org. I don't do this to make a personal profit so much as I do it to empty the house of things I no longer use. It would be a lot easier and more productive if I were to simply give these items away or even throw them in the trash. One of the reasons I experiment with CraigsList is because it is a fascinating window into psychology.

For example, I currently have a listing for a guitar I would like to sell. I recently received interest in that listing in the form of a one-line email message that simply read "Can you send me pic's" [sic]. No question mark, no introduction, no salutation. Just, "Can you send me pic's" [sic].

So I sent him "pic's." In response, he sent me the following email, which I quote in its entirety:
You now that they sell those guitar's all day.for 150 buck's on ebay and musician's friend. In 3 different colors.so seriously. You want 250. For it [sic]
This struck me as being a tad antagonistic, so I replied as follows:
You're welcome to buy one on EBay. :) Mine doesn't have to ship. I don't mind if you want to make a lower offer, but please do so nicely [sic]
As you can see, my sense of mischief got the better of me, and I started emulating my new pen-pal's unique approach to punctuation. It wasn't a perfect parody, of course. I can't go that far.

At any rate, my point was simply this: (1) If you can find the same guitar for a lower price, by all means purchase it for a lower price; (2) Although the guitar I am selling is listed for a higher asking price, there is no need to pay shipping charges, which makes the bottom line significantly closer to market value; (3) But still, if you, the buyer, would like to make a counter-offer, you certainly may - but do so respectfully.

Think about it, why would I acquiesce to a Craig's List bully? I'm not going to reduce my price for someone who criticizes me via email. Why would I do that?

I am a reasonable guy, however. If my correspondent can make me a compelling counter-offer and actually persuade me that I am better off selling it at that price, I'm happy to do so. I don't make a living by selling my used music equipment on Craig's List, after all. He won't be cutting into my profit margins. It's a guitar I bought, experimented with, and ultimately decided to part ways with. I want to sell it to him.

In response to my last email, my new friend apologized, saying he did not mean to offend me, and then suggested that he would get back to me with a counter-offer when he had settled on a number. I assume he is now doing his due diligence regarding market prices and assessing the best strategic counter-offer to make.

However, at this point I have all the information I need to assess my pen-pal's ability to negotiate, and my analysis is not particularly favorable of him.

Inability To Negotiate Is Now The Norm
Negotiation has always been a talent. Some have it, and some don't. However, it strikes me as being a talent that is now rarer than ever. This is not the first time I've engaged in Craig's List negotiations, and my recent experience is entirely reflective of my past experience. That is: people do not seem to understand what they're doing.

Negotiation is a process through which both sides make small confessions such that the ultimate agreement is more mutually beneficial than it would have been in absence of negotiation. Negotiation allows two or more parties to see whether they can reach a better arrangement than that which would occur without having the ability to negotiation.

Using my guitar example, the status quo might be that at my $250 asking price, I will not sell my guitar, nor will anyone acquire my guitar. Because I want to sell it, and someone else wants to buy it, the ability to negotiate a mutually agreeable price enables me to receive more cash than I would otherwise have, while simultaneously allowing someone else to acquire a guitar that he would not otherwise acquire. Thus, both of us benefit from engaging in a negotiation.

I apologize for that pedantic breakdown of the situation, but I do have a point: There is no reason to negotiate with someone who has no interest in appealing to my interests. Holding out for just one person's interests is not appreciably different from not negotiating at all, since I will not sell at a disadvantageous price, nor will the potential buyer end up with a new guitar. That means that his stubbornness hurts him as much as it hurts me.

Of course, his stubbornness was not his major failure here. I would have had incentive to prompt him for a better counter-offer if he had communicated with me in a pleasant way. (In truth, if he gets back in touch with me and starts communicating more pleasantly, I will still happily sell him my guitar.)

It is wholly disadvantageous for him to begin the negotiation process by antagonizing me. But why doesn't he understand this?

Political Breakdown
The reason he doesn't understand is because he has no concept of what it means to negotiate. Somehow, our digital lives have deteriorated our interpersonal skill-set. It is a lot easier to troll and flame an internet avatar than it is to sit down, look someone directly and respectfully in the eye, and have a real meeting-of-the-minds. You can power-off a computer that insults you; you cannot power-off another human being.

When you're stuck in the same room as someone else, or even when you're talking to that person on the telephone, the digital rules no longer apply. You're forced to appeal to a person's dignity, rather than their shame. You quickly determine that, to achieve a large number of your own goals, you need to help the other person achieve as many of theirs as possible. In short, you're forced to negotiate.

The dearth of diplomacy, however, goes all the way to the top. Consider, for example, this morning's news about the state of US soldiers in Afghanistan, as reported by CBS (emphases mine):
The Obama Administration is considering a complete pullout of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by 2014, a reversal of the current policy of keeping a small number of units there after the scheduled 2014 drawdown and a sign of mounting tension between President Obama and Afghan president Hamid Karzai. 
CBS News Chief White House correspondent Major Garrett reports that top White House aides admit the change reflects Obama's mounting personal frustration with Karzai. U.S.-Afghan tensions boiled over in June, following initial steps toward a launch of coordinated formal peace talks with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.  
One day after the talks between U.S. and Afghan officials and the Taliban were set to begin, Karzai publicly denounced the effort and suspended all conversations with the U.S. over future military cooperation.
Here we have two grown men - in fact, professional diplomats - whose approach to diplomacy is, apparently, to give up entirely if the other side does not adequately meet their needs.

Some sympathy for Karzai is required in this example. After all, if your country were slowly slipping back into the status of a failed state and the warlords were circling your one, last "green zone," grace under pressure is sure to give way to desperation, especially after some twelve years of begging for more help.

But Barack Obama has no such excuse. He is a laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize and the elected leader of what many call "the most powerful nation in the world." He holds the fate of Afghanistan in his own two hands, and possesses every imaginable advantage over Karzai. Why, then, would he invoke the nuclear option? Is he nuts?

Of course, we have seen this sort of behavior from Obama before, on virtually every issue. The "great orator" is a gifted writer of speeches, but his ability to negotiate productive solutions to complex problems leaves a lot to be desired. He bullies from the pulpit, he wags his finger, he maligns his opponents in the press, he sics his army of bureaucrats and law-enforcers on all those who inconvenience him.

These are the negotiation tactics of the schoolyard. Is it any wonder that ordinary people across the country are so incapable of engaging in productive negotiation when their leaders, the ones who draw six-figure salaries to sit down and negotiation productively, quit and go home whenever the negotiations don't fully bear fruit?

The only way forward here is for all of us, individually, to commit to being better negotiators, better diplomats. We'll never change Barack Obama, and I may never sell my guitar. But our only hope of improving our lot here is in acquiring an important social skill set.

Holding out for everything often means that you walk away with nothing. The goal of diplomacy is to ensure that you do not walk away with nothing. The lost art of negotiation is something we badly need these days.

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