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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

One Step Ahead

Mastering the Art and Science of Negotiation

David Sally

St. Martin's Press





(or, Why Florence’s infamous diplomat and philosopher might be a good role model)

On the morning after Christmas in 1502, a body was discovered in the main square of the town of Cesena, in the region of central Italy ruled by Cesare Borgia. The murder’s intended audiences were the abused people of the town, the warlords of the surrounding cities, and a visiting envoy from the republic of Florence. The envoy was one counterpart in a set of political negotiations that Borgia, the Duke of Valentinois, had meticulously planned. The murder of Ramiro de Lorca, the brutal Paulie Walnuts to Borgia’s Tony Soprano, had multiple meanings for the observers.

As in many negotiations, the incident caused a dispute over what actually had happened and over the numbers. Alexandre Dumas, whose counting abilities we might mistrust since his Three Musketeers involved four primary swordsmen, advanced two versions: first, that de Lorca’s body had been quartered and left in the square; and second, that his torso had been cut into four pieces while his head was placed on a pike. The envoy from Florence, Niccolò Machiavelli (yes, that Machiavelli), related a different quantitative appraisal in a letter to his city fathers: “Messer Ramiro this morning was found in two pieces on the public square, where he still is; and all the people have been able to see him.” The motivation for de Lorca’s murder was immediately clear to Machiavelli: “Nobody feels sure of the cause of his death, except that it has pleased the prince.” Left unstated was that the pleased Borgia felt absolutely no compunction, no guilt, and no remorse about having ordered the murder of his own lieutenant.

Machiavelli, whose most famous work on the machinations of power was based on his close observations of Borgia, had been negotiating with the prince on an almost daily basis since early October 1502. Borgia’s grand plan was to unite all of central Italy under his rule, and he was more than happy to hold the threat of invasion over Florence’s head to see what treasures he could extract as ransom. Machiavelli’s charge from his city’s ruling council (signoria) was a tricky one: keep the city from being included in Borgia’s imperial plans without being forced to support him with men, arms, and florins. All this while Borgia’s capos were filling the streets of the other towns in the region with bodies and blood. The envoy was a big underdog in this negotiation—underresourced, undertitled, homesick, lacking security, with nothing but his wits and his tongue saving him from a blade through the neck.

I know it might seem horribly anachronistic to travel back to the temporal, intellectual, and political heart of the Renaissance. For sure, life was nastier, more brutish, and shorter in those days. And yet, and yet: people were still people; princes, princes; sages, sages; and negotiators, negotiators. The talks between Machiavelli and Borgia involved the highest stakes (the envoy’s life and the fate of his hometown), with two supremely sophisticated bargainers using all the words and maneuvers at their disposal.

During his four months of following the court and watching the prince, Machiavelli sent home fifty-two letters. Some documented concrete offers from the prince and some related Borgia’s threats, typically made late at night in a darkened throne room. One sinister message, replete with implications similar to those of “Nice place you got here, be a shame if something happened,” was:

I am not lacking in friends, amongst whom I should be glad to count your Signori, provided they promptly give me so to understand. And if they do not do so now, I shall leave them aside, and though I had the water up to my throat I should nevermore talk about friendship with them.

Machiavelli also wrote of the intrigue, mystery, and rumors infusing the court, and of the challenge in gauging Borgia’s mind. Just a few lines before reporting de Lorca’s fate in his letter of December 26, 1502, Machiavelli noted, “The Duke is so secret in all he does that he never communicates his designs to anyone. His first secretaries have repeatedly assured me that he never makes his plans until the moment of his giving orders for their execution.”

Machiavelli’s job was to pierce that secrecy, anticipate his counterpart’s moves, and somehow arouse in the prince, as Dale Carnegie would state it, an eager want to do right by Florence. Seven years after his negotiations with the duke ended, Machiavelli summarized the responsibility of an envoy, and by extension any negotiator, this way:

The most important duty of the envoy, whether sent by a prince or a republic, is to conjecture the future through negotiations and incidents.

The incident of the dismembered body and other moves that Machiavelli witnessed while at court, as well as Borgia’s words as he spoke confidentially, flatteringly, imposingly, and, most of all, strategically, were all analyzed by Machiavelli with one solitary aim, the very aim that animates this book: trying to get one step ahead of his fearsome counterpart. Later on, as a retired envoy, he remembered the specifics of this goal but downplayed the complexity.

When it comes to your negotiations, you ought to have no difficulty making the right conjecture and weighing what the emperor’s intentions are, what he really wants, which way his mind is turning, and what might make him move ahead or draw back.

One writer observes that Machiavelli’s deep insight was that a negotiator was “expected to bring the gifts of a psychologist to the task of a prophet.” Machiavelli was gifted just so, and in the end, in the face of a terrifying, ruthless duke he would later make infamous in his most legendary book, The Prince, he was successful in keeping both his body and his hometown intact and unscathed.

* * *

You might conjecture then that I am recommending that you be like Machiavelli when you negotiate. You’d be right, and that puts us in a delicate place. To be “Machiavellian” has come to mean to be a sociopath, to be ruthless, to value the ends above the means, and, ironically, to be Cesare Borgia, to be the Prince. And you might worry that I’m asking you to take on these less than salubrious traits. That, however, would be to credit Machiavelli’s reputation rather than to see through to his reality, and to misweigh his intentions, his wants, and the turning of his mind.

Two factors sullied our insightful envoy’s character. First, the Church banned all of his writings for many centuries after his death, thus placing infallible papal condemnation at the forefront of societal disapproval. Second, both philosophers and playwrights found it useful, as a near rhyme, to identify “Machiavel” with evil. His name became a kind of meme for the Elizabethan era: Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta features a prologue with these lines:

To some perhaps my name is odious;

But such as love me, guard me from their tongues,

And let them know that I am Machiavel,

And weigh not men, and therefore not men’s words.

Shakespeare repeated the association when he wrote of a notorious, chameleonic, politic, subtle Machiavel. Modern personality psychology has legitimized the meme by creating and validating the Mach-IV test, which diagnoses how manipulative, devilish, and “Machiavellian” the respondent is supposed to be.

In fact, recent revisionist scholarship suggests that Machiavelli himself was not Machiavellian. Erica Benner, the author of Be Like the Fox, makes a compelling case that a shallow reading of Machiavelli’s work, conducted over centuries by critics with ulterior motives or simple minds, has led us to identify him with evil, wickedness, and ruthlessness. That some have been confused should not surprise: our envoy was an ironist, a spy, and an enemy to various lords. So he needed to speak obliquely at times to preserve his own neck and his beloved city, and he “learned how to tread carefully, speak in the right register to particular people, to criticize without seeming to do so.”

Shortly after Borgia’s murders of de Lorca and other a-loyal allies, Machiavelli’s letter to the signoria describes the cold-blooded man on his seat of power: “There is the Duke with his unheard of good fortune, with a courage and confidence almost superhuman, and believing himself capable of accomplishing whatever he undertakes.” Benner comments that the envoy is letting the signoria (and us) “judge whether his words swoon with admiration or ooze scepticism.” The former reading leads to Machiavel the evil one, and the latter to a clear-eyed negotiator who knew his letter would be intercepted and scrutinized by Borgia’s men, with its contents relayed back to the prince, and then sent on its way to a council of politicians who had their envoy’s back to varying extents.

So we’ll zig from the well-worn path of history and avoid the obstacle that “Machiavellian” represents, without at the same time losing the guidance of a wise, cunning, and sophisticated person, by considering this overarching advice: In your negotiations, strive to be Machiavelli-esque and bring the gifts of a psychologist to the task of a prophet. The Machiavelli-esque negotiator weighs what the counterpart’s true intentions are, what they really want, which way their mind is turning, and what might make them move ahead or draw back.†

We have one big advantage over Machiavelli in developing these gifts of psychology and prophecy. We moderns are blessed with a well-developed science of psychology and strategic prediction: the economics discipline of behavioral game theory. To be Machiavelli-esque is to be an applied behavioral game theorist—someone who can take the concepts from game theory (moves and payoffs, expectations, dominance, equilibrium, and best response) and combine them with a knowledge of social psychology (decision-making biases, misperceptions, social influences) to develop effective and sophisticated negotiating strategies.

Most people are unmindful, simplistic negotiators. Machiavelli was anything but. He was not only perceptive but multifaceted and flexible. He embodied and practiced one of his most famous sayings, “One needs to be a fox to recognize snares, and a lion to frighten wolves.” The fox must be clever enough to predict the trapper’s intentions and ploys and to doubt its own eyes, since many snares are camouflaged; the lion must be full of toughness, courage, and the integrity to do what its roars promise.

So the task we have set for ourselves here is to make you, reader, a mindful, sophisticated negotiator by helping you understand the science, the evidence, and the stories of those bargainers who were clear-eyed, keen psychologists and accurate prophets, who were able to be both fox and lion, who managed to get one step ahead and thus achieve great things.


(or, How Erving Goffman could see the way that people truly are and really interact)

The nun appeared in the professor’s doorway one day in 1968 in Berkeley, California, fully costumed in her black habit, black scapular, white wimple, white coif, and black veil. This particular professor would have instantly appreciated the little dramas, given the time and the place, that her walk to his office created. Had she strolled up Telegraph Avenue, she might have shared a visual frame for a few seconds with the blue-jeaned stoners in the Annapurna head shop; she could have crossed the playhouse of People’s Park, nodding at the tie-dye-wearing hippies holding peace signs; her black and white would have made a dramatic contrast with the saffron robes of the chanting Hare Krishnas down Channing Way; in Sproul Plaza, she might have been enveloped by the preachings of “Holy Hubert” Lindsey as he tried vainly to counter the counterculture of the students and to “bless their dirty hearts.”

The nun’s lay name was Ruth Ann Wallace, and she made this trip to negotiate for a seat in the professor’s seminar. It is safe to say that there was not another faculty member on campus who would have been less flummoxed by the sudden appearance of a fully swathed nun at office hours than Erving Goffman.

Goffman was arguably the greatest sociologist of his generation. Thomas Schelling, the game theorist and 2005 Nobel laureate in economics, said that “if there were a Nobel Prize for sociology and/or social psychology he’d deserve to be the first one considered. He was endlessly creative.” This creativity, and the chance to see his mind in action as he taught, was why hundreds of students, including Sister Ruth, tried to get into his seminar.

Goffman’s lack of bewilderment at the nun’s sudden manifestation was due neither to a devout Catholicism nor to a belief in visions. Rather, his nonchalance arose from a genius for seeing all of life at a remove. Goffman’s most famous book was titled The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, and it documented the ways we all “perform” under the stage lighting of the ordinary sun. He himself practiced what he preached, as one colleague noted:

Goffman presented himself as a detached, hard-boiled intellectual cynic; the sociologist as 1940s private eye. His was a hip, existential, cool, essentially apolitical (at least in terms of the prevailing ideologies) personal style.… [H]e was clearly an outsider. His brilliance and marginality meant an acute eye and a powerful imagination. He had a fascination with other people’s chutzpah, weirdness and perhaps even degradation.

What made him such an outsider? Well, if Machiavelli grew up within the confines of a city and within hailing distance of its palaces, Goffman was raised in the hinter-est of hinterlands in Dauphin, Manitoba, population 4,000, the bumper block to a two-hundred-mile railroad spur stretching northwest out of Winnipeg. His father, Max Goffman, and his mother, Anne Averbach, were Russian immigrants who married in 1915. The Goffmans were one of about a dozen Jewish families in the town and were rather well-off, as Max ran a successful dry goods store and invested in the stock market in Winnipeg. Both Anne and Erving’s older sister, Frances, as we’ll see in a later chapter, were show people, heavily involved in community theater. The young Goffman was at best uninterested in his locale: years later, he gave acquaintances the impression that he felt more marginalized by his rurality than by his Jewishness. He once poignantly said, “One is born near a granary and spends the rest of his life suppressing it.”

Copyright © 2020 by David Sally