04/05/2011 02:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Negotiate Like Batman

Negotiation can be a dramatic form of conflict resolution, which is one of the reasons why there are excellent negotiations case studies in movies, TV shows, and even some very unexpected books. There's a particularly great lesson in how to prepare for a negotiation about an hour into The Dark Knight. Coleman Reese (played by Joshua Harto) is an M&A lawyer working for Wayne Enterprises. In the course of conducting due diligence, Reese has successfully deduced that Bruce Wayne is Batman just by reviewing the financial records. Armed with this information, he decides to blackmail Wayne.

In a meeting with Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Reese gets right to the point. He tells Fox what he knows, shows that he has proof, and without giving Fox time to respond, he states his terms:

Coleman Reese: I want ten million dollars a year for the rest of my life.

Let's look at Reese's negotiation skills. He did a lot of things right. He laid his cards on the table. He did his research, which means that the facts are on his side. Given the nature of what he knows and the depths of their pockets, he's probably making a reasonable request. He made sure that he was talking to somebody in a position to negotiate. Best of all, he firmly anchored the discussion by clearly stating his terms -- ten million dollars a year.

Unfortunately for Reese, he made one mistake. He didn't consider his BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.) In other words, he never asked himself what would happen if he couldn't come to an agreement with Fox. Without blinking, Fox explains what Reese's BATNA is:

Lucius Fox: Let me get this straight. You think that your client -- one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world -- is secretly a vigilante who spends his nights beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands... and your plan is to blackmail this person? Good luck.

Fox has the better BATNA, so Fox wins. In addition to having a better hand, Fox also has excellent negotiation skills. Note that he concedes nothing. (Making concessions may be a legitimate tactic in friendly negotiations, but since they're discussing blackmail, Fox is wise to not validate any of Reese's accusations.) More importantly, he restates Reese's position. In doing so, he reframes it in such a way to show that Reese has no leverage at all. Reframing is a good strategy for two reasons. First, reframing the other side's position makes them agree to your version of their facts. (This is what happens in the Reese-Fox negotiation.) Second, it can also add clarity and understanding to a discussion, which can help bring both parties closer to a negotiated agreement.

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