James Comey, Hillary Clinton, and offers in negotiation

Last week, many of us watched as FBI director James Comey detailed the FBI’s investigation into Hilary Clinton’s email practices, then recommended against criminal charges. Many of us continued to watch as he was criticized from both sides of the aisle—in an unusually intense grilling by the House, for example. Although such a politically-fraught statement was sure to make one side angry, this statement seemed to make everyone angry—the left for its critique of Clinton’s behavior and the right for its recommendation not to charge.

Why would that be? Well, I’m not the FBI director, and I do understand why the person who is felt compelled to give an especially detailed statement. But I am a negotiation professor. As such, I believe that three negotiation principles can help to explain the universal sigh following Comey’s statement. They all originate in the idea that his explanation resembles a negotiator’s attempt to engage in persuasion, and his recommendation about criminal charges resembles a first offer (albeit one that everyone had to accept). If you buy that analogy, then negotiation research would suggest three problems with this approach:

  1. The arguments didn’t clearly support the conclusion: Perhaps the most basic principle of persuasion and offers in negotiation is that that the persuasion has to logically support the offer. The most consistent criticism of Comey’s statement was that the explanation implied that charges were coming. But then they didn’t. This created an uncomfortable inconsistency between the two—a “gap,” as Democratic Representative Elijiah Cummings put it.
  2. It was easy to generate counterarguments. Negotiation research has suggested that attempts to couple persuasion and offers backfire when the person who receives them can easily generate counterarguments. In that case, the research suggests that an offer without much persuasion may work better. I think it’s fair to say that Republicans didn’t have a hard time generating counterarguments, meaning that the simple, traditional, “here’s our recommendation” approach may have worked proven more compelling.
  3. The persuasion preceded the offer: Some intriguing and emerging research by negotiation scholars Nazli Bhatia and Robin Pinkley suggests that an offer followed by persuasion has a stronger influence on the listener than persuasion followed by an offer. The reason? The former approach leads the listener to start justifying the offer in their own minds. Unfortunately, Comey’s statement followed the latter pattern, the bulk of the presentation focusing on persuasion and the “offer” coming only at the end.

Again, who am I to second-guess the FBI director? No one, but I do believe that these three negotiation principles may help to explain the reaction he received. The lesson for the rest of us? If we’re going to make an offer and persuade someone to accept it, we’d better make sure to do it in that order, with the persuasion supporting the offer, and only when we’re confident that obvious counterarguments won’t pop to mind.

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