Let's start with a mathematical truth – if you wiggle the input, it affects the output. If you inject facts into a negotiation without assembling them into a pattern (story), you can create chaos. In negotiations, like mathematics, context is everything. Take this storyline for instance... an American movie actress, whose father is white and whose mother is African-American, meets and then marries a British prince. An implausible fairy tale without context, wall-to-wall tv news with context.
The story in any negotiation is important because it is a critical tool. Every negotiation requires a story in order to make true things broadly comprehensible. Taking data points and weaving them into an understandable and persuasive narrative is a critical step, not unlike a director creating a storyboard from the many elements of a screenplay. The process creates a powerful advantage if the story is coherent, plausible and economical.
The client’s story is the important story. It is different from a lawyer’s interpretation of the client’s story. Lawyers help their clients by suggesting prudent edits to the story that leave intact the heart of their client’s story. If there are scenes from the client’s story that the rules of evidence will exclude or for which there is inadequate proof, it does not mean that they have to end up on the cutting room floor. Instead, the storyboard can be edited so that every element of the story is given its appropriate place in the narrative and the story remains true for the client.
It may seem odd to consider, but even the most tangled, chaotic and seemingly intractable controversies devolve into stories, some complex and some not. When we look back to understand how and why we moved in time from point A to point B, we are searching for stories. Take, for example, the deal struck between the United States, Great Britain, France, China, Russia and Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) over Iran’s nuclear weapons program. When we seek to understand what happened, we will look for the stories. In fact, many of the story lines implicated in the JCPA negotiation show up in ordinary mediations, with the obvious absence of WMD’s:
- Family history
- Long, complicated and often hostile histories between and among the parties
- Imbalance of bargaining power
- Profound lack of trust between and among the parties
These bullet points represent just some of the threads that may appear in your client’s story. They deserve your attention. Don’t ignore them because they do not fit into a trial brief. They represent the raw material out of which you can help them weave their story so they are ready to negotiate successfully.