I used to give my Negotiation students at Harvard a set of fieldwork experiments, assignments to go try out this or that concept in real life and report back.  In my mind, I had pedagogically sound reasons for doing so.  And for some years, it went either fine or great.  And then one year, it went disastrously, with my students channeling Dr. Milgram in ways that caused me never again to repeat the experiment.  Earlier today, I received this account from Professor David White, FOI, at Seton Hall:


“The Pedagogical Value of a Can of Beans”

Last month, I taught my Crisis Negotiation Seminar at Seton Hall.  The three-day intensive offering brought together crisis professionals from the FBI Academy (via teleconference), Police Scotland (via Skype), the FBI Newark Division, and the FBI New York Field Office (in person).

We de-briefed the real-life Maersk Alabama (a/k/a “Captain Philips”) event while the Parisian Charlie Hebdo crisis was unfolding.

The course was especially meaningful for me, as I have trained with the NYPD Hostage Negotiation Team (Lt. Jack Cambria) since 2007 and have assisted the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit in their training of new special agents and local law enforcement.

My objective was to demonstrate the applicability of crisis negotiation principles to the everyday practice of law.  The four pillars are:

1. Don’t confuse getting even with getting what you – or your client – need.

2. De-escalate emotion while restoring reason to the negotiation.

3. Focus on process; the outcome will follow.

4. Remember that active listening is simultaneously the least expensive – and most effective – concession you can make.

I began by providing an overview of principled negotiation and the “Breakthrough Strategy.”  The experience was so positive that I hope to replicate it in whole or part at other institutions. I’d be especially delighted to do that at Oregon.

As a precursor exercise, we tried something new.  I firmly believe that a confident individual can negotiate anything.

As Day One drew to a close, I asked the 12 participants to reach into a bag and select a slip of paper, each of which revealed the name and address of a supermarket or bodega in Manhattan’s Financial District. I afforded the students approximately 25 minutes (the trip duration from Newark Penn Station to the World Trade Center via PATH) to devise a negotiation strategy.  This was planning on the go.

The objective was to purchase a can of beans for less than the SKU retail price. The task is more challenging than it might appear.  Sure, you can bargain for a hundred thousand dollars lower than the asking price of a multi-million dollar home, thousands off the price of a car, and perhaps hundreds off the price of high-end electronics.  But those negotiations are governed by a different set of cultural/professional norms.  Low-level employees in non-empowered workplaces are often reluctant to engage in non-linear thinking.  To be successful, the students would need to overcome that mindset.

I encouraged the participants to scout out the market before attempting the purchase. Which brand would they choose? Would they opt for the most expensive, the least expensive, or something in between?

I directed the students to text me once their attempt was complete.  Amazingly, 11 out of 12 secured a lower price.  Some achieved success with amused/confused cashiers, while others worked up the in-store chain of management.

In New York as elsewhere, employees who give away goods or services for unauthorized discount or simply gratis commit the crime of embezzlement.  (Think of your neighborhood bartender during the traditional “buy-back round.”) To my surprise, most of the supermarket employees were untroubled by that potential liability.

In many instances, a can of beans retailed for about $1.99, a reality that likely reflects Manhattan pricing.  For the majority of successful students, the discount ranged from $0.01 to $0.99.  In the most successful iteration, the student selected Amy’s Organic (approximately $4.00 per unit.) Through persistence, the student negotiated $2.00 off, an amount greater than the marked, original price in every other iteration.

Our most crafty student opted to walk up to the counter with a pocketful of change which aggregated to less than the purchase price.  Apologetically, she stated that her grandmother sent her to buy the beans and she left home without her own wallet.  The cashier rang up the sale.  The student then asked for a receipt that reflected the new price, because her grandmother would be upset if her granddaughter used her own money.

One of our bravest students pushed the discussion to the point where the store manager threatened to call the NYPD.  Undeterred in the face of Character & Fitness, he stood his ground and made one final proposal.  The manager caved and gave the discount.

This was unquestionably the most rewarding negotiation exercise I have ever facilitated.

Professor White’s accounts notwithstanding, I continue to be concerned enough about the potential for harm that I’m not ready to launch back into fieldwork-as-assignment.  But this made for interesting reading…

Michael Moffitt has been Dean since 2011 and a member of the Oregon Law faculty since 2001. Before coming to Oregon, he served as the clinical supervisor for the mediation program at Harvard Law School and taught negotiation at Harvard and Ohio State. Michael Moffitt has published more than two dozen scholarly articles on mediation, negotiation, and civil procedure. He is also a contributor to ADR Prof Blog. He is a devoted but mediocre snowboarder, an aggressive tennis player, and a happily exhausted parent.