Stronger together: Achieving goals through negotiation and nonviolent action

Protests organized in response to the killing of George Floyd have given the Black Lives Matter movement new opportunities to reach its goals. Negotiation techniques will play a key role.

By PON Staffon / Business Negotiations

Since 2013, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has been organizing nonviolent action to defund police forces and invest in Black communities. For years, many Americans—particular White Americans—viewed BLM as a radical fringe group. That swiftly changed in May. Horrified by a bystander’s video of the death of George Floyd, millions of people worldwide have flocked to the BLM cause, taking to the streets to protest police brutality. For many, what had seemed like a niche political movement became a civil rights crusade.

The groundswell of support is giving BLM the power to effect significant societal change, and negotiation will be a crucial tool in those efforts. Not surprisingly, many of the heroes of social-justice activism—including Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Václav Havel—have also been masterful negotiators. We look at how the two fields of nonviolent action and negotiation intertwine and can bring about broader change together.

Beyond hashtags and marches

Community organizers Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi launched the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2013 as a hashtag in an online campaign protesting the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. BLM members held their first nonviolent protest in Ferguson, Mo., after the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a White police officer.

A decentralized movement that eschews hierarchy, BLM has 16 chapters in U.S. and Canadian cities that have organized thousands of demonstrations and protests. Chapters commit to the organization’s guiding principles, which include working for freedom and justice for all, acknowledging and respecting people’s differences and commonalities, and practicing empathy. BLM’s policy demands have included community control of the police, reparations for slavery, and ending the death penalty.

To further its goals, BLM began branching out from protests to legal action. In March 2018, for example, BLM Chicago and other activist groups sued the City of Chicago and its police department for condoning and covering up officers’ use of excessive force against racial minorities. The plaintiffs agreed to call off their suits in exchange for being included in negotiations for federally mandated reforms of the Chicago Police Department. Ultimately, however, BLM Chicago was dissatisfied with the final consent decree, saying it failed to meet many of their concerns. BLM has also participated in negotiations that have led to new drug intervention programs in Washington, D.C., and a pilot program in Dallas that puts social workers, rather than the police, in charge of responding to mental-health-related 911 calls.

Where nonviolent action and negotiation overlap

Nonviolent action and negotiation have much more in common than theoristsand practitioners from each field might assume, write University of St. Thomas professor Amy C. Finnegan and Program on Negotiation managing director Susan Hackley in a 2008 article in the Negotiation Journal. “Both are action-oriented strategies for persuading others to act in a way that meets one’s needs and interests,” they write.

Nonviolent action encompasses protests, strikes, economic boycotts, civil disobedience, media campaigns, and other methods of engaging in conflict without using physical violence. Civilian-based groups carry out nonviolent action to motivate powerful parties to agree to political or social change. In negotiation, meanwhile, individuals or groups try to influence others through direct engagement— including haggling, joint problem solving, and persuasion techniques.

Finnegan and Hackley identify the following three areas of overlap between nonviolent action and negotiation:

  1. Engaging with conflict. Both fields—in theory and practice— view conflict as something to be actively engaged in rather than avoided. When conflict is handled constructively, they assert, meaningful change can occur.
  2. An emphasis on power. Negotiation theorists and practitioners highlight the importance of assessing one’s relative power in a bargaining situation and working to improve it. Likewise, activists carefully analyze their counterpart’s strengths and weaknesses, looking for vulnerabilities.
  3. Strategic action. Both fields focus closely on the processes people use to try to reach their goals. Thorough preparation, framing, coalition building, and active listening are common process strategies in both.

A powerful combination

Nonviolent action and negotiation are often more powerful when combined than they are on their own, note Finnegan and Hackley.

The day after Floyd’s death, the four officers who had been on the scene were fired but did not face criminal charges. As protests and media attention grew nationwide, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office in Minnesota arrested Derek Chauvin for third-degree murder and manslaughter but did not charge the other three officers. Facing pressure from community activists, Floyd’s family, and Minneapolis City Council members, Minnesota governor Tim Walz took the unusual move of assigning state attorney general Keith Ellison to take over the case. Ellison then had the other three officers arrested and added second-degree murder to the charges against Chauvin. Both nonviolent action and negotiation—in the form of personal appeals and pressure—prompted leaders to act.

Now that the BLM movement has gone “mainstream,” to quote the Washington Post, its leaders and members have abundant opportunities to exert influence through negotiation.

Indeed, one strategist for the movement, Thenjiwe McHarris, told the Post that it is “meaningless and harmful” for people to join marches and post “Black Lives Matter” on social media without advocating directly for policy change.

What comes next?

Activists will need to debate when to protest and when to negotiate. Nonviolent action often is a precursor to negotiation, as Martin Luther King Jr. observed in his famous 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” Amid the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, some activists accused Nelson Mandela of engaging in negotiations prematurely, before nonviolent protest had achieved sufficient gains. Others believed that after 27 years in jail, he had waited long enough to negotiate.

Social-justice activists sometimes resist negotiation because they assume it will require them to sacrifice their beliefs through capitulation or appeasement. Activists can avoid this pitfall by being clear about their goals and aspirations.

“Many internal negotiations will likely need to happen within the BLM community,” Hackley told Negotiation Briefings. “Given that it’s a presidential election year, the media will play a role in framing the issues, Congress may or may not act, and ‘defunding the police’ is easily mischaracterized, there is a lot of work to do when it comes to strategizing about next steps.” Social-justice activists sometimes resist negotiation because they assume it will require them to sacrifice their beliefs through capitulation or appeasement. Activists can avoid this pitfall by being clear about their goals and aspirations, says Hackley. “What is the greatest achievement they could aspire to? What are their short-term and long-term goals? How much are they willing to settle for?” she asks. “There will always be people who say activists gave in too much and others who say they fought too hard. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr.—were they sellouts?”

The power of yes—and no

Activists also need to acknowledge the likely advantages of collaborating with their opponents to create value rather than just competing. “Negotiations often succeed when the opposing parties agree, together, to face the problem, not face off against each other in an adversarial way,” says Hackley. “How you frame the problem matters. President Trump, Congressional Republicans, and some municipal leaders view the protests for social justice as a law-and-order issue. Protesters argue that it is past time to address systemic racism in the United States and ensure ‘equal justice for all.’ Where is there common ground? Shared interests? Points of influence and persuasion? Engaging constructively with conflict is how we bring about
change, and it is hard work.”

As for business negotiators, there is a great deal they can learn from activists, including the power of building coalitions with like-minded others, the importance of keeping one’s principles front of mind, and the value of working to resolve interteam conflict.

Negotiation often revolves around “getting to yes,” while nonviolent action often focuses on saying “no”—no to injustice, no to brutality, noted William Ury, a distinguished senior fellow at the Harvard Negotiation Project, in a 2005 interview. “We need both yes and no in this world,” Ury said. “Yes without no is appeasement, and no without yes is war. … We need both yes and no together.