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August 30, 2017 Articles

Vito Corleone's Guide to Negotiation

A Hollywood classic offers lessons on how to prioritize, compromise, and realize your goals

by Hon. Michael R. Panter (Ret.)

Revenge is sweet. Sweets are not healthy for us, but they taste so darn good. That's why we watch so many revenge movies, which feel so wonderfully delicious.

In the movies, you can see many examples of characters fighting to get what they want. There are just as many examples of one character exerting power over another; that's what every trial lawyer occasionally dreams of: bending another to our will. In the movies, it's satisfying to see a fight end with a clear victor, or a conflict with one person clearly imposing his or her powerful will.

Unfortunately (or, probably, fortunately!), real life is different from reel life. In real life, whenever you're dealing with another human being, you rarely get everything you want.

Many consider The Godfather to be the greatest "negotiation movie" of all time. Certainly, it has the greatest line about negotiation: the one about making someone an offer they can't refuse. The negotiator who is willing to cut off the head of the other party's beloved racehorse—and leave it in that person's bed— is likely to get what he or she wants.

A more realistic example of negotiation in The Godfather is the wonderful scene when Marlon Brando's Vito Corleone calls a conference of the five families. The families and their capos have bloodied the streets of New York, killing each other and each other's sons, and each and every one of them is vulnerable to attack at any moment. Worst of all, none of the families is able to conduct "business"; war has become very expensive. Blood is flowing. Money is not. After months of this bitter warfare, including the killing of his oldest son, Vito Corleone calls a meeting.

Vito Corleone is desolate, enraged. He wants vengeance—he wants them dead. He wants to go back to his old life, quietly making money the old-fashioned way, through gambling and prostitution. But he wants other things even more. He wants his second son to be safe and return home. He wants to resume his business. In order to get what he wants most, he has to give in and agree to what the others want most. Although he hates the idea of selling drugs, he has to agree to let it happen, in order to meet the demands of the other families. So he does.

In a beautiful, heartfelt speech, Vito agrees to accept their demands to enter the drug trade. He agrees to share his political power and influence. He agrees to make peace and forgo further vengeance for the killing of his son. He makes the deal. But he also has one term that is nonnegotiable: the safety of his youngest son, Al Pacino's Michael Corleone, hiding in Italy. In very explicit terms, Vito says that the safety of Michael is the one term that is so dear he needs more than a promise they will not harm Michael. Vito says he is a "superstitious man" and that should anything happen to Michael in any way shape or form, he will retaliate terribly. The deal requires that the others become guarantors of Michael's safety. After all agree, the deal is sealed with the customary Sicilian hugs and kisses. Everyone is hurting, but everyone got what they most want—at least for a moment.

There are several important takeaways from that scene. First, you can't negotiate in the past. You can only negotiate from where you are now. I'm constantly telling plaintiffs' counsel that we cannot undo the plaintiffs' injuries. No jury can change them. No one can make their tragedy not have happened. No one can restore what they really lost. Now it's just about money.

Second, anger does not solve our problems. Only when we let go of our anger can we move forward and make our lives better. This has always been a tough one for me personally. The movies usually send the opposite message, glorifying the power of anger and making it look so satisfying to see the kidnapper/murderer/bully/terrorist blown to smithereens.

The third takeaway from this scene is that you must always prioritize your wants. Vito unequivocally does not want to get into drugs. He is absolutely certain that it will destroy their other businesses. He has told the other families no before, getting himself shot in the process. He has gone to war with the other families over his principles, has put everyone in his family at risk, has lost his son, and has incurred extreme economic loss. To get what he wants, Vito must put the safety of his favorite son above his hate of the drug trade—and above his unquenchable lust for revenge. He chokes on it, but he agrees to the deal.

Isn't it terrible to have to live with other people and to have to give in to their demands when they block us from something we want and deserve? When so often we are right, and they are wrong, really wrong?

Except . . . for many of us, living with others is one of the great needs of life. That's why we get married, have relationships, join clubs, live in cities, and work in a people business instead of driving a truck over the road. All of these relationships have the potential to cause frustration and pain. In dealing with other people, you rarely get to have it all.

Winning is not the only thing. Sometimes you do have to surrender, at least a little bit. You do have to compromise—even compromise your ideals. You do need to walk away from fights. You do need to accept less. You don't always get all you're entitled to, every time you're entitled to it. The great challenge of life is to try to reframe what you're doing, not as a sacrifice or giving up, but as accepting an imperfect deal and moving forward toward your goal.

Besides, Vito kills them all a few powerful scenes later. That's what makes it a movie.

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