This is part of the “virtual book club” discussing readings for the symposium at the University of Missouri on October 7: Moving Negotiation Theory from the Tower of Babel Toward a World of Mutual Understanding.

David Matz suggested A Walk in the Woods by Lee Blessing (1988). Here’s his description of it.

This is an artistic effort intended to engage the reader/audience with the thinking and feeling of the participants in a negotiation.  A Walk in the Woods is a play available on DVD and in print.  It is a “private” conversation between two participants in an arms control negotiation, and juxtaposes an innocent, but learning, American negotiator with an experienced, not completely cynical, Russian negotiator.

The parties are explicitly trying to understand each other, and it is their feelings of success and failure that most draw in the observer.  The parties are aware of the power of the organizational / political context to make personal communication nearly, though perhaps not completely, impossible.

One way to understand this play is to see negotiation as a prison, with the drama residing in the parties’ awareness of the risks of breaking out.  The play may be about a conflict that no negotiation can resolve, and what it feels like to live with that limit.  It thus raises issues of stamina and hope, and what makes them so difficult.

John:  I originally planned to include a post on this play at the end of the series but I think it’s actually a great way to start because it is an easy, short, laugh-out-loud piece that’s a wonderful summer read, available cheap on Amazon and perhaps at a library near you.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, David, for suggesting this play.  It is a wickedly funny black comedy in the Catch-22 and Dr. Strangelove tradition that uses the absurdity of our situation to shine a light on overlooked aspects of reality.

The two characters are a young American and an older Soviet arms control negotiator who have a series of talks in the Geneva woods, away from the formal negotiation table.  Over a period of time, they develop their relationship and reach an agreement to take back to their superiors at home.  This play is inspired by a real-life episode, though the events in the play differ from what actually occurred.

The American represents an ever-so-earnest, idealistic, and naive image of the purpose and nature of negotiation based on the parties’ stated interests and intentions.  The Soviet presents a somewhat cynical perspective of a veteran diplomat (as distinct from a negotiator) who peels back the public stories to reveal a plausible account of the parties’ real interests and intentions.

Most of our writing on negotiation – and I plead sort of guilty to this – is like the earnest American who believes with all his heart in the romantic story of negotiation.  For negotiation experts like us, there is great value in recognizing the back-stories of reality.  One need not completely agree with the Soviet’s theory of the events in the play to appreciate the range of possibilities beyond the American’s simplistic view.

The play includes lovely little bits about many negotiation issues such as the role of relationships, preparation, principal-agent tensions, negotiation techniques, and dissemination of information to constituencies, among many others.

I don’t want to say much more about the play so that I don’t give away the delicious turns in the story and what happens to the characters.  But I will reproduce a short excerpt to give people a little taste.

Honeyman: … So, will you answer my question?
Botvinnick: What question?
Honeyman: My question about whether or not you agree that we shouldn’t be friends.

Botvinnick: Ah. Well, my answer is of course that I agree with you.
Honeyman: You agree?
Botvinnick: Yes
Honeyman: That we shouldn’t be friends?
Botvinnick: Yes.
Honeyman: That’s not what you said before.
Botvinnick: But then I didn’t know your view. Now I do, and I want to agree with you.
Honeyman: You want to agree with me.
Botvinnick: Yes.
Honeyman: Why?
Botvinnick: Because you are my friend.

So, my friend David, what would you add to this description of the play?  What insights or appreciation did you get from it?

David: Thinking of this play as teaching material, and focusing on the material you quote, I raise questions in class about the following.

Is this paradox (worthy of Groucho Marx: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”) a sample of what goes on negotiations?  Are we stuck with other paradoxes?

In the rest of the play friendship between these two negotiators is quite the serious matter.  Does it make negotiating harder? Easier?

Through the whole play the Russian is presented as the teacher in the dyad.  Does he learn anything about himself?

John Lande is the Isidor Loeb Professor Emeritus and former director of the LLM Program in Dispute Resolution, at the University of Missouri, School of Law. He received his J.D. from Hastings College of Law and Ph.D in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also an avid writer and contributor to Indisputably.org