Rock, Paper, Scissors.

You know the game.

Two of you stand face-to-face, each pumping a fist to the chant of one, two, and then on three, you each re-shape your fist into either a rock, by tightening your fist; a paper, by flattening your hand palm down; or scissors, by making a V with two fingers.  Then you see who won. Paper beats rock, because paper can cover a rock.  Scissors beats paper, because scissors cuts paper. And rock beats scissors, because a rock can crush scissors.

Is it possible this simple game might hold a useful insight to help you break impasse when negotiations seem otherwise hopelessly stuck?

Maybe so.

Here’s a thought:

Start with the “transitive law.”  You may not recognize its technical name, but we all embrace its infallible logic, the rule that if A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A must also be greater than C.  We’ve seen play out in hundreds of situations:  If Wilt Chamberlain is taller than LeBron James, and LeBron James is taller than me, then, obviously, Wilt is also taller than me.  If a burger costs more than a shake, and a shake costs more than fries, then a burger costs more fries, as well.  It’s logic 101.

It’s also the same linear logic we apply to preferences.

If you like pie more than pasta, and pasta more than beets, then, logically, you’ll also (we hope!) like pie more than beets.  If X is better than Y, and Y is better than Z, then, logically, X must also be better than Z. One final example a bit closer to home:  If your clients prefer settlement option A over settlement option B, and settlement option B over settlement option C, then logically they will also prefer settlement option A over option C.

That’s the transitive principle:  It’s logical, predictable and its undeniably, unequivocally and universally true. . .except when it’s not.

As in Rock, Paper, Scissors.

If Paper beats Rock (which it does), and Rock beats Scissors (which it does), then, according to the transitive principle, that means that logically, predictably and obviously, Paper must also beat Scissors, right?  Wrong!  In the game, Scissors always beats Paper.

But how can that be?  What happened to the universal truth of,  If A is greater than B?  Does Rock, Paper, Scissors represent some freakish warp in the logic of the universe?  Or is something else going on?

No surprise. It’s the latter. And that “something else” is that the perfect logic of “A is greater than B” only works when we’re comparing options along a single dimension or characteristic, like height or price or taste or amount. When options become more complex, however, when A, B and C are multi-dimensional, and when we start evaluating them based on multiple elements or characteristics, then the simple truth of the transitive law no longer controls and we enter the world of Rock, Paper, Scissors.  That game works, because when we compare “Scissors” to “Paper” versus “Scissors” to “Rock,” we aren’t evaluating “Scissors” each time by the same trait.  When we compare Scissors to Paper we say Scissors wins, because we’re focusing solely on Scissors’ ability to cut paper into tiny bits.  But when we compare Scissors to Rock we say Scissors loses, because we no longer care about Scissors’ cutting ability.  We’re focused instead on Scissors’ vulnerability to being crushed by rocks, which is a different trait.

The lesson is this: So long as we compare options only on a single trait or characteristic, then the transitive logic of “If A is greater than B” always controls.  But when we start evaluating options based on multiple traits, then the certainty of that logic no longer applies and we enter the Rock, Paper, Scissors world, where the fact that A is better than B, and B is better than C, does not necessarily mean that A is also better than C.

How can we use this insight to help unblock an impasse in negotiations?

Generically, it’s a 2-step process.  Step#1, figure out what game you’re playing.  Step #2, change the game.

If you’re locked in a one-dimensional tug-o-war over dollars, where every penny is an increasingly unacceptable capitulation to the other side, recognize that you’re playing “If A is greater than B.”  So change to “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” You can do this by adding new elements to your next proposal. They have to be meaningful and of value to the other side, of course.  But if you do that, then you might credibly be able to argue, for example, that even though the dollars in your new Option C remain less than the dollars in their Option A, your Option C is actually better overall than Option A if you account for these new elements in comparing them.  Succeed at this approach, and you will have eliminated your impasse by changing the game to Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Alternatively, if you’re mired in apples and oranges comparisons, with each side’s proposals so embellished with disparate elements that it’s nearly impossible to tell whether any proposal is a step forward or a step back, recognize that you’re playing “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and change the game to, “If A is greater than B.”  Do this by finding creative ways to argue that all the elements of your new proposal are, as a practical matter, “equivalent” to all elements of your opponent’s last proposal, except for the one element you want the parties to solely focus on. It means finding principled ways to argue things like, “your item 5 is basically equivalent to our item B, and our items A and C together are basically equivalent to your items 3, 4, and 6,” and so on, until all that remains is a simple, apples-to-apples comparison along one dimension, like price or timing confidentiality, etc.  That means you’ve successfully changed the game to, “if A is greater than B” and comparing offers now becomes simply, transparent and direct.

So, if you find yourself at impasse, remember, it just might be the game you’re playing.  Change the game, and you just might break the impasse.

David Simpson

(Originally published, L.A. Daily Journal, 03/06/15 | download pdf)