Six lessons on negotiation from Eliot's Middlemarch

21 October 2021

Core Insights: Behavioural Science

By Daniel Read

According to literary giant Virginia Woolf, Middlemarch is "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people".

And grown-up people know that life and the many relationships we build is a constant stream of negotiations, from who gets into the bathroom first to how much a private equity firm should pay for buying a large supermarket chain.

When George Eliot - the pen name for Mary Ann Evans - wrote Middlemarch, a fictional English Midlands town where she depicts provincial life, she was in her fifties and perhaps at the peak of her powers.

Eliot is a very astute observer of human life, as great novelists have to be, and Middlemarch has a number of negotiations played out on the page in such detail that several could be used as case studies.

One of the most compelling of them is between John Raffles and Nicholas Bulstrode, who has bought a piece of land to, so he believes, finally make it as a respected landowner and so enter the highest levels of society. But he has a dark secret from his past, which Raffles helped him cover up. For his troubles Bulstrode paid for Raffles to move to the US.

When Raffles turns up on his doorstep Bulstrode believes he could be ruined by this dark secret being made public and immediately begins to negotiate with his old business associate.

It is a very realistic portrayal of Bulstrode desperately trying to keep Raffles quiet and illustrates some important insights for anybody about to enter a tricky negotiation. Indeed, Bulstrode’s ineptness in these negotiations offer six valuable lessons.

 

1 Focus on the relationship

This is a standard negotiation technique, but one Bulstrode forgets immediately, because as soon as he meets Raffles again after many years apart, instead of treating him as an equal, he condescends to him as if his former business partner is beneath him.

It is obvious Bulstrode does not like Raffles, but by insulting him the wealthy banker makes it less likely to find a resolution. Even when dealing with enemies or those who are unlikeable, there is no point undermining the relationship - negotiators should be at least professional with their rival. This is especially true in difficult negotiations, there is always something to be gained in maintaining the relationship, especially when there are big differences.

A crucial skill is to maintain a good relationship no matter if differences have developed. Bulstrode blows it almost immediately. If he had started in a friendly manner, offered Raffles a drink and not even asked him what he was after, things could have gone differently, but because he goes on the offensive there is only one route Raffles can then go down – an adversarial one.

2 Disclose as little as possible about a weak position

One of Bulstrode’s mistakes is to reveal to Raffles that he has the power to harm him. It is almost the very first thing he does by saying “what can I do to get rid of you?”

Raffles knows Bulstrode is in a weak position straight away. If Bulstrode had been polite and friendly to Raffles then he would not have betrayed his fear and his weak position. Even better, if Bulstrode had kept in touch with Raffles while he was in the US and checked on his welfare, keeping relations friendly, his former business partner may not even have come back.

But Bulstrode makes it very clear that Raffles can harm him and compounds this by constantly telling Raffles that he wants him to disappear.

It is not about lying, but in order to keep a strong position a negotiator should not disclose how desperate they are to reach an agreement, it immediately puts them on the back foot.

 

3 Assess the credibility of threats

This is a key concept. If somebody says "if you don’t do ‘X’ then I won’t do ‘Y’", you have to question that statement – often it is not logical, especially if ‘Y’ will harm them as much as it harms the other party.

For instance, in the Cold War both sides always threatened that if the US or Soviet Union fired their nuclear weapons they would immediately retaliate with a volley of missiles. But how would that benefit either side? It doesn’t, the threat to retaliate would not be credible, which is why automatic forms of retaliation were built into each country’s defence capabilities, to prevent such a weakness.

In a negotiation it is important to ask if your opponent: will they follow through with their threat? Raffles says he is going to move to Middlemarch so Bulstrode is desperate, but what would Raffles do if the banker refused to pay him off?

Raffles is never going to move to Middlemarch; he is not very likeable nor does he have the social skills needed to integrate with the town’s middle-class. Even if he moves to Middlemarch and tries to tell people of Bulstrode’s crimes, Raffles may not be believed and if he was, he would be ostracised as well.

When assessed, Raffles does not offer much of a threat. Bulstrode is thinking his reputation will be destroyed, but Raffles is not a very credible source.

If Bulstrode had concentrated on the relationship and even offered to put Raffles up in a hotel for a few days, his adversary would have seen what a middle-class town Middlemarch was (and how blasé Bulstrode was to his presence) and his enthusiasm to spill the beans would have quickly dissipated

Blackmailers have to make their threats credible. But what is Raffles going to get from sharing his information on Bulstrode’s past? It is an empty threat.

 

4 Don’t give away your willingness to concede

Bulstrode effectively makes concessions without getting anything in return. He says he will pay Raffles to leave and, even before hearing a counter-offer from Raffles, comes up with an even higher price.

Raffles turns up and Bulstrode immediately asks “what can I do for you?” He is constantly making offers to Raffles, giving up the value to negotiate without his foe offering anything in return.

This is an unreciprocated concession and is seen a lot when people are desperate to get a deal (and when they have not planned their negotiation in advance). People also hate silence, and tend to fill it in – often by making an offer they should have kept to themselves.

5 Help your counterpart imagine a better outcome

It is common for negotiators to concentrate on the matter in hand, without thinking of the wider issue that could lead to a more mutually beneficial solution.

For instance, two housemates may argue over who does the washing up, but a bigger argument is how to organise the household chores. It would be much better to negotiate about that rather than the dishes. Especially as it might be that one person likes doing the dishes and the other really hates washing up, but doesn’t mind taking out the rubbish, so a mutually beneficial agreement has been found rather than falling out over just the dirty plates.

Bulstrode does not find out about Raffles’ real interest in the negotiation. Raffles is lonely and feels betrayed by Bulstrode and may care more about his honour than just money, but this is never investigated.

So it is important to look at all options and not just the ones on the table right now. What else could be discussed? Bulstrode offers Raffles a living but he turns it down, saying he wants his freedom. But the banker does not pursue it, even though it may have been a route to a better outcome for both. In the end Raffles leaves with a fair amount of money, but not an overwhelming amount, and he does come back again.

 

6 Consider the non-monetary options

In many situations there is more to the negotiation than money; there is the person’s feelings and honour, but this is often ignored.

Raffles’ motivations are complex; he is looking for forgiveness about what he has done in the past, it may be weighing on his conscience, but Bulstrode does not attempt to help Raffles restore his honour or use the fact that he was the only social connection his old business partner had.

Bulstrode could have worked to set Raffles up as respectable person, as an ally in Middlemarch and could have created some kind of loyalty, but none of this is explored.

Often honour and appearing as a victor is the most important aspect for a negotiator, so it is important to consider how to help an adversary achieve this. It may be a better option than the straightforward handing over of money or the deal on the table.

 

Negotiating is a skill, one that can be learned. As we can see from Bulstrode, it is crucial to realise when you are in a relationship that involves negotiations – most do. And then it is important to step back and heed these lessons. If you do, a better future can be negotiated for both sides.

Further reading:

Read, D. and Hills, T. T. (2021) "A negotiation in Middlemarch", Negotiation Journal, 37, 2, 203-220.

Read, D. (2020) "The five games of Mr Edgar Allan Poe : a study of strategic thought in “The Purloined Letter”", Rationality and Society, 32, 4, 36.

Sah, S. and Read, D. (2020) "Mind the (information) gap : strategic nondisclosure by marketers and interventions to increase consumer deliberation", Journal of Experimental Psychology : Applied, 26, 3, 432-452.

 

Daniel Read is Professor of Behavioural Science and teaches Negotiation Theory and Practice on the Executive MBA and Executive MBA (London). He also lectures on  Strategic Games:Thinking rationally about business, policy and real life on the Undergraduate programme.

Follow Daniel Read on Twitter @danielmabuse.

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