Dan Canon with electoral prescience: “What do you think you can win by starting with your compromise number?”


In the latest installment of THE UNFUCKING OF THE MIDWEST (at LEO), Dan Canon explains a phenomenon that I always thought should be obvious. To end a negotiation positively, one has to begin it properly.

This is why folks who consider themselves “liberal” or “left” currently find themselves occupying a tar paper shack off in Center Right Land.

Why Republicans win at negotiating… and moderates lose.

In our civil justice system, 99% of all cases settle before trial. Sometimes for a little money, sometimes for a lot. As such, we lawyers end up doing a lot of negotiating. So much, in fact, that we tend to take for granted the basic principles of skillful dispute resolution: Calculate the midpoint and try to subtly pull your opponent away from it. Don’t bid against yourself. Make the other side think they’ve won something. Imagine you’ve got a client who wants to leave a negotiation with $50,000. Your opponent’s starting offer is $5,000. You don’t start negotiating at $50,000 — that’s your compromise number. You’ve just set your client up to resolve the case somewhere in the $20,000 range (that being the midpoint between your number and your opponent’s).

Instead, you start at $150,000. That signals to the other side that your final number is somewhere in the $70,000 range. If they spend an entire negotiation thinking that they need to pull you away from $70,000, landing on $50,000 seems like a big victory for them, even though that’s exactly what your client wanted. You made them think they won something. Say it doesn’t go that way, though. Say the other side puts on the brakes at $40,000 — lower than you would have liked. That’s still much higher than $20,000 and, therefore, much better than you could have done if you had used your ideal number as your opening offer.

Students and clients often ask: Why not just be honest? Isn’t it better to just put your cards on the table, say what you want and say “take it or leave it?” But it doesn’t work that way. Protracted negotiation is not about honesty or dishonesty; it’s a psychological process. It’s about anticipating — and hopefully changing — your opponent’s expectations along the way. You may have to adjust your own expectations, too. In fact, your expectations might be adjusted whether you like it or not, because what seems realistic at the beginning of a negotiation is often totally unrealistic by the end.

In the coming months, a complex set of negotiations will be playing out among candidates vying for all kinds of elected positions. And while a government full of lawyers is not nearly as much fun as one full of fighter pilots, actors, optometrists and radio hosts, I wish some of our Democratic candidates (and incumbents) could at least brush up on the basic principles of negotiation. What I would like them to ponder this cycle is: What do you think you can win by starting with your compromise number?