A 3-Minute “Goat” Negotiation Challenge (with Real Implications)
Here’s another cool diversion for these grim times. I first heard this brief negotiation story from my friend, William Ury, though it turns out to have variants in many cultures. The lessons of this tale have been invaluable to me in advising on truly challenging business and political negotiations.
A beloved man passes away in a small Middle Eastern village. After the funeral, his three sons somberly return home to open his will. By far the most valuable part of his estate consists of 17 prize goats, which represent the main store of value in that local region. With trepidation, the sons open the document: the oldest son is entitled to half of the father’s wealth, the middle son is granted a third, and the youngest son gets one-ninth.
Starting to divide the estate, the oldest claims his half of the 17 goats, which inconveniently, was eight-and-a-half (8.5). Not wanting to cut one of the valuable animals in half, he demanded nine of the goats, but his brothers emphatically said “no way, you’re only entitled to half.” Moving on from that unresolved issue, the middle son claims his third of the 17, which equals five and two-thirds (5.67). When he demands six goats, his brothers indignantly refuse.
Tempers rising, they move to the youngest son. His allotted one-ninth of 17 equates to one and eight-ninths (1.89) of a goat. He mutters that he should clearly get “at least two” given how close his share is to that number. After “no” from his brothers —"that’s all you’re due” they maintain—he grouses that maybe he should just cut off the tail or nose of a goat so he’d get his exact share. No go
Following fruitless debate and increasing anger—deeply inappropriate at such a somber time—they turn in desperation to an elderly woman in the village who has a reputation for wisely sorting out conflicts. She tries this and that option, all to no avail. There just aren’t enough goats to go around. But then she hits on a solution and describes it to the three sons.
Soberly, she says “your father was a great man, revered by all in this village. In his honor and to ensure peace in his house, I want you to take my prize goat, the only other one in the village of this priceless species. Then, with 18 goats, your estate division problem will be easy.”
And it surely was: the eldest son takes half of eighteen, which is nine; the middle son takes his third of 18, which is six; and the youngest takes his one-ninth of 18, which is two.
Gratified, they count up their shares: nine for the oldest, six for the middle son, and two for the youngest. But 9 + 6 + 2=17! Astonished, the three each claim the full amount due according to the will, but there is one left over. So they give the 18th goat back to the wise woman and they are done! They hadn’t needed that 18th goat after all.
Whoa! What gives? The three sons had foundered on an old negotiation trap: they had immediately jumped to the conflict-inducing conclusion that there simply weren’t enough goats to go around. Insufficient resources! Versions of this common mental leap often lead to bitter battles over budgets, prices, or headcounts: “there’s just not enough to go around, so we’ll have to fight about it.” In fact, this mental jump is so common that psychologists have studied it and given it a name: “the mythical fixed pie.”1
But looking at the conflict through another lens, or reframing it, one quickly realizes that there were enough goats to go around. This wasn’t a problem of insufficiency; rather, it was a problem of indivisibility: 17 can’t evenly be divided in half, thirds, or ninths—but 18 can be. (For the wonky: supply the 18th goat and the new total number, 18, is divisible by 2, 3, or 9—with one goat left over to give back. Fortunately, the father’s will only allocated 17/18ths of his estate; hence the elegant solution. For the reallywonky: try this story with the same will and 35 goats; then the wise woman gets two goats back for her one—and each son gets his full share!.)
From the blog of James Sebenius
So here’s the story. My wife and I were hiking last summer. Glacier National Park. We were coming down after visiting Sperry Glacier, a truly magnificent hike. We were descending across a scree field on a trail cut into the side of the mountain when we came upon a family of four stopped in the trail.
To give you a picture of that, it wasn’t really that steep of a slope but you didn’t want to fall off. It wasn’t like the side of a cliff or anything but the trail was a bit narrow.
Directly in front of them was a mountain goat, munching on some grass on the side of the trail. There wasn’t really room to go around the goat so these folks were stopped in their tracks.
The family included grandma, granddad, son-in-law and 7-year-old granddaughter (mom and a newborn were at the lodge at the trailhead). They were from North Dakota and were afraid to pass the goat, who was a bit menacing, bobbing his head up and down as they approached.
Now keep in mind, this was a wild animal. Bigger than most of the goats we see around here, he did have those curved horns that we assume he uses for butting things. This family was wise to proceed cautiously.
So I pulled on my full “country boy” persona and stepped forward boldly, clacking my hiking poles and yelling at the goat “Billy, get off my trail.”
The goat just looked at me. “I don’t have time for this, Billy, get off my trail!” He moved to the side of the trail.
“That’s not enough. Git on up that hill!” To which Billy ran on up the hill, nimbly, like mountain goats do. We all passed safely.
On down the trail, we stopped and talked to the family. The little girl was in awe.
“Mister, how did you do that?”
I told her, “Well, honey, me and that goat just speak the same language — one old goat talking to another old goat.”
The little girl was just all “wow” and everything while the grandparents laughed out loud (lol to teenagers and millenials). As you might have suspected, there is a message behind this whole story.
In recent weeks, I’ve talked about making decisions, not resolutions and about what you might do to stay healthy.
Well, sometimes you just have to take charge. Take charge of your health. Make those decisions that allow you to be the person you might need to be.
Take charge of where you are. Take charge of your work environment. Take charge of your family situation. Take charge of your life.
Like with that old goat, sometimes you have to move boldly and bravely. I was confident that I could handle whatever that old goat could come at me with. Being brave is not about having no fear, it’s about being able to look fear in the face and tell it to move out of the way.
It’s about taking charge of the situation, your situation. Know that inside of you is all you need to achieve your dreams, whatever they may be.
Joe Black, PT, DPT, SCS, ATC is a physical therapist and athletic trainer at Total Rehabilitation and is Manager of Outpatient Rehabilitation for Blount Memorial Hospital. Email joeblack email@example.com to write to him.
Read “The Old Man at the Bridge,” A Short Story by Ernest Hemingway
“The Old Man at the Bridge” by Ernest Hemingway:
An old man with steel rimmed spectacles and very dusty clothes sat by the side of the road. There was a pontoon bridge across the river and carts, trucks, and men, women and children were crossing it. The mule-drawn carts staggered up the steep bank from the bridge with soldiers helping push against the spokes of the wheels. The trucks ground up and away heading out of it all and the peasants plodded along in the ankle deep dust. But the old man sat there without moving. He was too tired to go any farther.
It was my business to cross the bridge, explore the bridgehead beyond and find out to what point the enemy had advanced. I did this and returned over the bridge. There were not so many carts now and very few people on foot, but the old man was still there.
“Where do you come from?” I asked him.
“From San Carlos,” he said, and smiled.
That was his native town and so it gave him pleasure to mention it and he smiled.
“I was taking care of animals,” he explained. “Oh,” I said, not quite understanding.
“Yes,” he said, “I stayed, you see, taking care of animals. I was the last one to leave the town of San Carlos.”
He did not look like a shepherd nor a herdsman and I looked at his black dusty clothes and his gray dusty face and his steel rimmed spectacles and said, “What animals were they?”
“Various animals,” he said, and shook his head. “I had to leave them.”
I was watching the bridge and the African looking country of the Ebro Delta and wondering how long now it would be before we would see the enemy, and listening all the while for the first noises that would signal that ever mysterious event called contact, and the old man still sat there.
“What animals were they?” I asked.
“There were three animals altogether,” he explained. “There were two goats and a cat and then there were four pairs of pigeons.”
“And you had to leave them?” I asked.
“Yes. Because of the artillery. The captain told me to go because of the artillery.”
“And you have no family?” I asked, watching the far end of the bridge where a few last carts were hurrying down the slope of the bank.
“No,” he said, “only the animals I stated. The cat, of course, will be all right. A cat can look out for itself, but I cannot think what will become of the others.”
“What politics have you?” I asked.
“I am without politics,” he said. “I am seventy-six years old. I have come twelve kilometers now and I think now I can go no further.” “This is not a good place to stop,” I said. “If you can make it, there are trucks up the road where it forks for Tortosa.”
“I will wait a while,” he said, “and then I will go. Where do the trucks go?”
“Towards Barcelona,” I told him.
“I know no one in that direction,” he said, “but thank you very much. Thank you again very much.”
He looked at me very blankly and tiredly, then said, having to share his worry with some one, “The cat will be all right, I am sure. There is no need to be unquiet about the cat. But the others. Now what do you think about the others?”
“Why they’ll probably come through it all right.” “You think so?”
“Why not,” I said, watching the far bank where now there were no carts.
“But what will they do under the artillery when I was told to leave because of the artillery?”
“Did you leave the dove cage unlocked?” I asked. “Yes.”
“Then they’ll fly.”
“Yes, certainly they’ll fly. But the others. It’s better not to think about the others,” he said.
“If you are rested I would go,” I urged. “Get up and try to walk now.”
“Thank you,” he said and got to his feet, swayed from side to side and then sat down backwards in the dust.
“I was taking care of animals,” he said dully, but no longer to me. “I was only taking care of animals.”
There was nothing to do about him. It was Easter Sunday and the Fascists were advancing toward the Ebro. It was a gray overcast day with a low ceiling so their planes were not up. That and the fact that cats know how to look after themselves was all the good luck that old man would ever have.
When Goat was returning from the market with a bag of salt, she met a hungry Hyena. To hide her fear she decided to pretend that Hyena was her uncle.
‘Hello Uncle,’ said Goat said in a soft and loving voice.
Hyena did not know that he was related to any goats. He stopped to think about all the members of his family.
While he was thinking, Goat turned quickly and hid in a nearby cave where she knew that Lion was recovering from a broken leg that he had sustained in a fight with a tiger.
Hyena, realizing that he had lost the Goat, followed him into the cave, but did not know that Lion was inside. The three of them met face to face. Goat thought quickly, and taking the salt she had brought in the market, she faced Lion and proudly announced.
‘Lion, I have brought you a cure for your broken leg. I bought it from a renowned doctor at the market. You must eat salted Hyena meat. See here, I have brought you the salt.’
Lion looked at the salt and said, ‘It is good of you to have brought the salt, and I see that there is also a Hyena here.’
Hyena tried to escape, but with one giant paw, Lion reached out and knocked him to the floor. Lion took a bite out of his back, rubbed the flesh in the salt and swallowed it. He loved the taste, so asked Goat if he could have some more.
‘Certainly,’ Goat replied, ‘You can keep it all!’ and slowly backed out of the cave before running off to safety. He congratulated himself on his cleverness.
In the meanwhile, inside the cave, Lion took a second bite out of Hyena’s back. While he was rubbing the second piece of meat in the salt, Hyena took his chance and escaped from the cave. His back hurt a lot, but he was thankful that his life was spared.
Until this day, Hyena still walks with a low back because of the mouthfuls that Lion took out of him.