Kenny Rogers and the Gambler: A Lesson in Negotiation

Article Note

A few years ago, I took a class on Negotiation and Conflict Resolution. The assignments for the class included writing a negotiation journal. In addition to reflection on the negotiation exercises in class, we were also asked to write two essays: One describing what we hoped to learn from the class, and one describing what we had learned. This is the second essay.

Nothing has been changed apart from minor spelling corrections and the addition of a YouTube link to the song. This essay is as it was submitted for the class assignment.

I have spent a considerable amount of time in this class. This was not just limited to the time spent in class, but involves the time I spent reading, preparing for the exercises and then just plain trying to apply the lessons to my daily life. This has left me with significant appreciation for the importance of being in such a course and having the kind of systematic tools that Malhotra and Bazerman1 promote in their book.

When I had to sit down and write a conclusion of what I learned in the class, I was at a loss. It is nigh impossible to summarize the enormous learnings from this class and discussions into two to three pages, especially when they are double-spaced. However, I did remember a song that I have loved for a long time. I thought of that song often when we were discussing in class and this is possibly the best way to summarize what I learned from the class. The song in question is The Gambler, and for me, there’s only one version of this song, the one by Kenny Rogers.

In the song, the gambler gives the narrator some advice about life, which could just as well have been the entire class if this class had to be finished in 3 minutes and 34 seconds. The advice, from the song lyrics, is given below:

Said, “If you’re gonna play the game, boy

You gotta learn to play it right

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em

Know when to fold ’em

Know when to walk away

And know when to run

You never count your money

When you’re sittin’ at the table

There’ll be time enough for countin'

When the dealin’s done

Every gambler knows

That the secret to survivin'

Is knowin’ what to throw away

And knowin’ what to keep

‘Cause every hand’s a winner

And every hand’s a loser

And the best that you can hope for

Is to die in your sleep”

The lessons I have learned in this class easily map to the advice in the song.

Let’s take the concept of investigative negotiation. It’s designed to elicit maximum information and to generate a bigger pie for everyone. If employed correctly, it tells you how to leverage your invariables (BATNA2, RV3 and Target points) to achieve your end-goal.

Along with investigative negotiation, there is also the concept of sharing information. How you might share your vulnerability to elicit reciprocation, or you might keep your weakness hidden, because it gives the image of power and ensures that you don’t appear week.

The concept of BATNA itself tells you what you are walking towards, if the deal does not go well. Finally, there are all sorts of reasons why one should shy away from negotiation even if that might look tempting.

I believe that is a sufficient connection of knowing when to hold ’em, knowing when to fold ’em, knowing when to walk away and knowing when to run.

The concept of never counting your money sitting on the table might sound morbid in the song but in the context of negotiation, it can signal towards expanding the pie. Particularly, when utilizing contingency contracts and post-settlement settlements to create value for all parties involved. And surely, once the deals are done and everyone has achieved win-win, there is time enough to count your gains.

Similarly, the disappearance of the circle, which I have not achieved, but have certainly in my sights as a goal. Recognizing the there is no explicit set of negotiable and non-negotiable things is a major intellectual shift for me. While I can understand and articulate it verbally, I still need to practice it to the point that I no longer have to think about it to invoke it.

Within that disappearing circle though, there are still thing that need to be prioritized and others that need to be downplayed. Relationships that need to be saved and bridges that should be built. Thus, while everything is negotiable, everything should not be negotiated. What can and can’t be negotiated, should or shouldn’t be negotiated should be dictated by a clear sense of purpose and guided by the overall vision.

So letting somethings go while hanging on to others is a part of becoming a negotiation genius. As is negotiating something and not negotiating another. That is mirrored by knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep, because every hand’s both a winner or a loser, depending on the circumstances you find yourself in.

Finally, learning to negotiate is a life-long process. Malhotra and Bazerman make it a point that they emphasize throughout the book and specifically in the last chapter. Processes like this will continue, with people continuously working on their skills and becoming better at them iteratively. There really is not trophy that you get at the end of some kind of obstacle course with negotiation. You negotiate throughout your life, until you’re no more. Some of us are lucky in that they can negotiate a deal with the grim reaper, or maybe a challenging game of chess, however that’s an exception, not a rule.

I cannot emphasize enough how much this course has meant to me in my personal growth and how it has equipped me with newer thought processes. This has truly been a learning experience.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

  1. The book is Negotiation Genius: How to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Brilliant Results at the Bargaining Table and Beyond by Deepak Malhotra and Max Bazerman was the textbook for the class. ↩︎

  2. BATNA is Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement, aka what you will do if the negotiation fails. ↩︎

  3. RV is Reservation Value, aka the least you are willing to accept for the deal to go through. ↩︎