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A Further Exploration
Peter S. Adler
Editors’ Note: Not all negotiators are capable of seeing the world in multiple dimensions, shifting their responses according to different needs, and accepting uncertainty with good grace. But the best negotiators do this routinely. Adler shows why, particularly in conflicts and transactions that involve people and groups with different world frames or cultures, it becomes essential to be able to shape-shift, like the Greek god Proteus. This is not a charade—it is responsiveness. And it can be learned.
Being a continuation of “Protean Negotiation” (2007) with further notes1 on that highly malleable style of negotiation named after a minor Greek God and through which savvy bargainers can change shapes, work with or against opponents, and achieve their ends by multiple means.
The Meteorite that Landed in New York
In 1906 an expedition from the American Museum of Natural History in New York acquired a 10,000 year-old, 15.8-ton meteorite about the size of a small Toyota truck from the rain forests near Willamette, Oregon. Almost 100 years later the museum raised millions of dollars, took the rock that fell from space out of storage, and built a stunning glass-enclosed exhibition that houses the meteorite. The meteorite was so large and dense that the museum had to construct part of its Rose Space Center around it.
In 2000 after the center’s opening gala, Clackamas leaders from the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde submitted a claim of ownership under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) (Jurgensen 2000). Clackamas leaders said the meteorite was called “Tomanoas,” was much revered, and that it needed to be returned to the rain forest in Oregon forthwith. It was, they went on, an object of veneration and a source of songs and legends because it embodied the three heavenly realms of the sky, earth, and water. Clackamas youths were traditionally sent to the meteorite on vigils to send and receive messages from the spirit world. In short, it was sacred and they wanted it back.
If you were the leader of the Clackamas delegation, what would you do? And if you were director of the American Museum of Natural History, how would you proceed? Therein, as always, sit strategic and tactical choices that are informed by the styles and rituals of different ideologies of negotiation….and by the ability to change one’s mind.
Negotiations take myriad forms, some simple and some complex. All are dynamic and sensitive to varying unknowns. Many are vulnerable to incipient chaos in their environment. Others become chaotic in and of themselves. The higher the potential for chaos and uncertainty, the more fluidity is required.
The notional concept of a “Protean Negotiator” derives from a minor Greek god named Proteus, one of Poseidon’s many children. Proteus was a recluse and an enigma residing alone on the Island of Pharos off the coast of the Nile delta where he tended his father’s seal herds. More retainer than player, Proteus was nonetheless drawn into various political battles, because of his ability to peer into the future. He survived these battles by eluding the task of predicting what lay ahead for others—always a thankless task, and sometimes one with fatal consequences. He did this by shifting shapes.
In the late 1960s, psychiatrist and historian Robert Jay Lifton wrote extensively about a new and distinctly “Protean Style” of identity that he saw emerging in different cultures and countries. It was, he thought, a response to what we now call “globalization”, a phenomenon that has created an unprecedented and not fully understood flooding of images, ideas and processes across all borders. Globalization has accelerated and amplified the meltdown of tra-ditional social and psychological anchors and boundaries—family, religion, culture, and nature. It has also bred its...
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