Negotiation Lessons from Deadwood

Have you ever appeared at the negotiation table with a thoughtful list of offerings only to realize that your assumptions about those across the table were dead wrong? There’s a scene from HBO’s acclaimed Deadwood series (2004-2006) that illustrates just how uncomfortable it can be to misread or underestimate the other party.

To set the scene: Alma Garret is a widow who has come into a lucrative, well-producing gold claim in the lawless, titular town of Deadwood. Mining tycoon, George Hearst, has come to the camp, slowly consolidating smaller, single-operator claims into one ruthlessly efficient operation. Only Garret’s mine stands in the way of his complete control of the area’s gold mining operations. Hoping to strike a mutually beneficial bargain after a bumpy first meeting, Garret visits Hearst with a list of proposals. This is what happens.

We certainly hope you have never had the displeasure of negotiating with someone like Deadwood’s Hearst. But coming to the table with an incomplete or wishful picture of what motivates the other side is a recipe for failure.

Do a Little M.O.R.E.

Alma Garret’s assumptions were that some cooperative balance could be struck, not imagining that her rival wanted nothing of the sort. He was there to take it all and any balance—no matter how well struck—would be detestable to Hearst. This is a dramatic example of K&R’s first foundational principle of negotiations: “Get M.O.R.E. — Preparation is key to a winning negotiation.” M.O.R.E. is an acronym for Motivations, Objectives, Requirements and Edge. Spending time investigating the first three—for all parties involved—yields the fourth, the advantage gained from the result of preparation.

Motivations: The drive for a party to act as they do.

Objectives: A party’s goals.

Requirements: The steps the party must take to reach their objectives.

Preparation is where many negotiations are won or lost. It means probing and gathering information to gain a more complete understanding of the other side’s probable motivations, objectives and requirements. This necessitates team planning sessions, rigorous information gathering and rehearsing. You are not likely to come up against a potential customer or partner whose ultimate goal is to run you out of business. Using M.O.R.E., you are more likely to craft a relevant value argument that is persuasive. Your business case will make sense and you’re less likely to arrive at the table with a proposal or solution that misses the mark.

Working harder and smarter in the preparation cycle gives you valuable knowledge and builds your confidence, an intangible that is important to creating good outcomes from challenging deal-making situations. If you watched the Deadwood clip, you can see how quickly Garret’s confidence vanishes once she realizes how gravely she has misread Hearst. Luckily for us, negotiation practices (and civilization) have come a long way since the rough-and-tumble days of the Black Hills Gold Rush, although “all or nothing” negotiators still exist. If you find yourself in a negotiation where you are surprised by your counterpart’s requests, or if your proposals or assumptions have offended or disinterested a potential customer or partner, it might be time to evolve your practice by doing a little M.O.R.E.