Understanding the Other Guy

Media274In the September 15th 2012 issue of The Economist, there was an obituary for Roger Fisher, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-author of the book, Getting to Yes, which was published back in 1981. Dr. Fisher was a globally recognized expert in the art of negotiation.

He got Gamal Abdel Nasser to consider Golda Meir’s political situation in 1970, coached Jimmy Carter through the 1978 Camp David Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty negotiations, and advised Ronald Reagan to spend an evening discussing ideas with Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva in 1985, rather than overtly confronting him. Throughout his career, he helped a number of nations and political factions to avoid bloodshed by sitting down and talking with each other. It’s people like this who make you realize how little you’ve accomplished in your life.

The obituary lists some of Dr. Fisher’s rules for negotiation:

  • Separate the people from the problem
  • Focus on the basic interests of both sides
  • Do NOT stake out unwavering positions
  • Explore all possible options before making a decision
  • Listen actively
  • Recognize the emotions on the other side

​The greater the extent to which each side comes to understand each other – how they think, what their fears are, what they want most of all – the greater the chance of coming to an agreement and ultimately, learning to live with each other. He encouraged participants in a conflict to spend time together, to eat meals with each other, to talk about their families. Indeed, several long-time members of congress have stated that one contributing factor to the current polarization in Washington is the fact that years ago, a congressperson would move his or her family to the D.C. area to live during his or her term(s) in congress. A representative or senator from the other party might live in the same neighborhood; your kids might play soccer together, or land parts in the same school play. Heck, they might even date. It’s hard to demonize someone when you’ve spent the afternoon with them, cheering for the same high school football team. These days, congressional families typically remain in their home state (in their gerrymandered congressional districts, safely insulated from anyone with a differing political perspective), and Mom or Dad commutes home on congressional recesses and weekends. No more beers with the opposition leader on a Friday evening. No more cross-the-aisle understanding.

Dr. Fisher’s approach ties in with a phrase which I first heard from my friend and colleague, Katherine Rosback: “Why does that make perfect sense?” Katherine introduced me to this concept during a presentation she gave at the 2011 INFORMS conference. She went on to explain that we are all too quick to write off adversaries (whether in politics, business, or personal life) as irrational. How many times have you heard a cohort say something like, “There’s no point in talking with those people – they’re just crazy?” Well, no, they’re not. They’ve got perfectly good reasons for doing and saying what they do and say, and if you’re really interested in making progress, you’ll try your best to understand what those reasons are. Even if their logic strikes you as flawed, only through understanding that logic are you ever going to be able to figure out the best pathway to achieving whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish.

But this line of thinking does more than just help us to bargain successfully – it can also stave off outright disaster. Irving Janis’s classic paper, “Groupthink,” first appeared in the November 1971 issue of Psychology Today Magazine. Janis was spurred to investigate the groupthink phenomenon by the Bay of Pigs fiasco. By all accounts, President Kennedy had assembled one of the most impressive collections of brainpower ever seen in the White House; how had a team of luminaries like this managed to screw up so badly? How does an assembly of geniuses collectively make such obviously bad decisions? The answer is that they fell into groupthink, a dangerous state which is actually more likely to occur on a team of superstars than it is on a team whose members are less impressed with one another.

Janis outlines the symptoms of groups which have fallen into this deadly trap. One of them is the tendency to stereotype one’s opponents. This is often the source of sentiments like “Those people are crazy,” or “Those people don’t care about anyone but themselves.” Usually, “those people” care very deeply about causes and organizations beyond themselves. If we’re smart, we’ll try our best to understand what those motivating factors are.

Additional signs of a team in groupthink are:​

  • An illusion of invulnerability, which leads teams to ignore danger signals as they arise.
  • Rationalizing away information, which contradicts the group’s position or indicates that the group’s plans are flawed.
  • An unquestioning belief in the inherent moral superiority of the team and the team’s cause.
  • Pressuring anyone in the group who questions the team’s plan or expresses doubt – even momentarily – into getting on board and being a team player.
  • Self-censorship: the above pressure causes team members not to raise concerns they themselves have.
  • An illusion of unanimity: since no one is expressing doubts, everyone must be on board.
  • Protecting each other – and especially the team leader – from information which might break the group’s complacency about the decisions they’ve made.

As a result of these psychological phenomena, teams in groupthink rarely consider more than one course of action (note that this violates one of Fisher’s tenets). Once a path is chosen, the team never reconsiders it, even in the face of mounting evidence that they initially failed to take all sorts of risks and drawbacks into account. No contingency plans are developed; developing contingency plans requires one to admit that things might not proceed according to your forecast. The natural psychological tendency to preferentially believe information that confirms one’s own views becomes amplified within a team that is in groupthink. Information that contradicts the team’s beliefs is denigrated, ignored, and suppressed. No outside experts are consulted who might shed some light on the various possible ways that events might actually unfold, or – once the plan has been put into action – why things have not gone according to plan. Groupthink results in disaster.

A couple of years ago, one of my daughters taught at a school for gifted children in Denver. One of these young wizards was interested in game theory. My company helps clients to make decisions in complex situations, and sometimes game theory is an appropriate tool to use to gain insight into how events might unfold when there are multiple players who have interrelated decisions to make. So, while I was in Denver visiting my daughter, the student asked to interview me (quick disclaimer: I do not claim to be an expert in game theory). His first question was an excellent one: “What is the hardest part of using game theory?” I paused only a moment to think before replying: “Truly understanding the other players’ positions – how they think, what their objectives are, why they do what they do.”

I think Dr. Fisher, Ms. Rosback, and Dr. Janis would agree that it’s difficult. But it’s also incredibly important.

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