Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A foray into pop culture--and an explanation of negotiation

I recently saw Avatar, a movie about what happens when people are too caught up in their preconceptions to bother to negotiate.

In Avatar a marine goes to some far-away planet and infiltrates the indigenous people whose culture is the usual Hollywood image of the noble savage, more or less naked, unspoiled by consumer goods, happy to be in sync with nature and to ride their pet pteranodons. The evil earthlings have gone to the planet to exploit its natural resource, some weird rock. The biggest rock cache is under the giant tree where the Na'vi live and frolic.

Spoiler alert

The marine is accepted by the Na'vi and goes native. He tells the evil colonel and his evil capitalist boss that Earth has nothing the Na'vi want in exchange for leaving their tree. So the evil ones conclude that the only solution is to blow up the tree.


This is where the marine should go to his adopted people and say, "Guess what--the sky people want some rocks that are under the tree. Do you mind if they take them?"

The Na'vi might say, "Yes, we mind terribly and you'll have to blow up our tree to get our rocks." Then the movie would continue as if this interruption had never occurred.

Or, the Na'vi might say, "Rocks? Sure, we don't care, as long as you find an alternative to strip-mining. You know in that original ending to the movie, how you prayed to mother earth and she had all the animals help you kill a lot of people? Why don't you pray to her to have the rocks put in a neat pile instead?"

Or, they might say, "Yes but only if you give us plastic beads, wireless internet connection, a promise never to darken our treestep again, and/or veto power at the Security Council of the United Federation of Planets."

Parties negotiating over insurance often make the same mistake: They assume they know what the other side wants without bothering to ask. Typically, the insurer/adjuster/insurance defense attorney overlooks the fact that the claimant might be seeking something other than just money, or at least in addition to just money: maybe an apology from the tortfeasor, or an acknowledgement that their life has been diminished by the accident, or a show of respect. Claimants tend to overlook the fact that in the long run (and often, but not always, the short run) the insurance company cares most about money, in the form of keeping overall liability and defense costs down. Between the claimant and the insurer there is often a lot of unrealized common ground.

Blowing up the tree is not always necessary. Sometimes you just have to ask for what you want.

No comments: