During a recent excursion to a café on a sunny Saturday afternoon, a mathematician taught me how to play chess over tea and lunch. Since then, I’ve played another ten games with that same mathematician, and I’ve miraculously only lost nine of them – and as a writer up against someone who actually enjoys mathematics, I consider that a fairly lucky track record. Having gone from losing my queen in the first three moves to putting my partner in check multiple times throughout a match, I’ve learned quite a few lessons about how to play chess successfully (and even more about how to play unsuccessfully). As it turns out, these teachings are relevant not only to playing chess but also to negotiating and ensuring that the process of mediation or negotiation is as fulfilling and successful as possible.
Chess is played several moves ahead – no move is made randomly, everything is part of a larger strategy. As I’ve so painfully learned, every move, no matter how seemingly small, holds larger consequences in the long run, and maintaining composure is an important part of making strong moves without regrets. One of the key selling points of mediation is that it significantly cuts back on the time that would be spent in court over the same issue. With that said, submitting to mediation and negotiating an issue requires patience, both in terms of preparation and once at the table. Both in chess and in negotiating, making hasty moves can be cause for a quick demise.
When I get put in check, as has happened more times than I care to admit, I have to consider whether moving my king in one direction or another will ultimately cause me to lose the game or if it will give me another chance at life. Or, perhaps more importantly, I might be able to use another piece more creatively to counter a threatening move rather than simply “running away” from the situation. Likewise, mediation is unique in that it encourages creative solutions between parties in conflict. Its process is not constrained by the same limitations as litigation, meaning that while parties might find themselves settling their dispute at a certain sum of money, they are also free to explore more creative options that might prove even more beneficial and satisfying to both parties.
In both chess and mediation, creativity comes with a level of risk. It is possible, for example, that playing chess offensively, rather than defensively might be bold enough to put me in a position to win. It also might lead me to get too excited, making rash moves and ultimately losing. Taking a risk during a negotiation can potentially pay off, but it also might make the opposing party even more firm in their position, ultimately leading to a deadlock between parties – which is where having a third-party mediator can help turn around such a standoff. Part of taking a risk is having a strategy to implement, and knowing where the line is and how not to cross it.
Although not impossible, it is exceedingly rare to win a game of chess with the entire army intact. Pieces are ranked in terms of “importance” and some must be sacrificed in order to achieve an ultimate goal – putting the other person in check mate (or surviving as long as possible, in my case). In mediation and negotiation, part of the preparation is determining a list of interests, and then ranking those interests to allow for some concessions. The very essence of negotiating means that parties must choose their battles – some smaller demands must be conceded in order to achieve the larger goal, whatever that may be.
Thankfully, mediation has a much higher success rate at 75% than my chess playing. Mediators and negotiators can learn a lot from a board game, and can feel satisfied knowing that they will feel more reconciled after conflict having done so. In the meantime, I can only dream about having a 75% winning rate – I’m just going to work on winning my second game. Wish me luck.
By Leah Oppenheimer