Question. You somehow stumble on Batman’s secret identity. You conclude that you’d like to profit from this situation. How best to get a good result for yourself?

How might this work from the point of view of negotiation technique?

Here is one approach. It does not end well.

The text of this exchange:

One of Wayne Enterprises’ accountants has traced the money and realised that Bruce Wayne must be Batman. He confronts Lucius Fox with schematics of the Wayne Enterprises prototype Tumbler, obviously the Batmobile

Coleman Reese: I want $10 million a year, for the rest of my life

Lucius: Let me get this straight. You think that your client, one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world, is secretly a vigilante who spends his nights beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands. And your plan is to blackmail this person?

Pauses, smiles 

Good luck.

The accountant slowly realizes what Wayne/Batman could do to him. He gets up from his seat and leaves the schematics on Fox’s desk

Coleman Reese: You can…keep these…

Lucius calmly goes back to reading his paperwork

Why exactly does this fail?

At a recent negotiation skills masterclass I asked the participants how they might approach the problem were they in the shoes of the accountant. Various different proposals came forward, including this superficially better one:

I need to show you this [pushes the diagram across the table] … I think I can help you solve your problem…

That one also does not work. Why? Because like the movie version it is making assumptions about the relationship between the two speakers that might not be borne out in practice.

Someone else suggested staying anonymous while letting Batman know that his secret is broken and a reasonable asking for payment. That works only for so long: sooner or later to make any gains for yourself you’ll have to open yourself to some sort of direct contact to get the blackmail money, and Batman’s capacity for tracing you may well > your capacity for hiding.

Therefore what?

* * * * *

Suppose you do discover Batman’s secret identity. Who now has a problem? Batman? Or you? Or do you both have a problem?

The nub of it is that on the face of things Batman has a new, serious problem. If his secret identity is exposed it will be harder and maybe impossible for him to operate as Batman. Why wear the disguise? All the mystique will have vanished. Plus his enemies will know where to look for him, and he will have to devote a lot of effort to staying alive during his day job. All that is not good.

But YOU have a problem, BECAUSE Batman has a problem. Batman may think (correctly) that you want to take advantage of your information. He also may think (correctly) that you have no need ever to scale back or end your demands. So (if he wants to stay in the Batman business) he will have a very strong reason to make sure you never speak. Batman seems pretty tough. Can you be sure that he can restrain himself enough not to silently bump you off?

In short, the shared issue here is not about money or ‘power’. It’s about the balance of managing risk on each side.

Batman faces the risk of being exposed, and the risk of you not being ready or able to stick to any deal he offers.

You face the risk that Batman may be unimpressed with you and your machinations.

Therefore … what?

Here’s how I might do it if I were Reece. I ask for a private meeting with Lucius, then open the discussion thusly:

I have a problem. [Push the diagrams across the table then say nothing else – let silence do the work]

This approach puts the emphasis on Lucius to respond. Not to a crude blackmail demand. But to a far more complex open-ended question churning in his head: Good grief! What’s the best thing to do now?

The advantage of this is twofold. First you make no explicit assumption or assertion that Batman has a problem. You focus on your problem and then see what happens. Lucius’ response will help you grasp a bigger sense of the issues at stake for Lucius/Batman.

Depending on Lucius’ reply (if any) you then might continue thusly, in a matter of fact if not deferential tone:

My problem has two parts.

First, I can’t forget what I’ve seen, however hard I might try.

Second, I have real risk-management issues. I can see that Batman might not be happy that I now have this knowledge – he may want to shut me up for keeps!

This is why I have had no choice but to arrange for lots of copies of this document to stay incredibly well hidden but also to be made available to the world media immediately on any untimely death or accident.

Then (again) say nothing else – let the silence do the work

This tells Lucius that you are smart. You see exactly what is happening: if Batman has a problem over this new situation, your own problem is accordingly all the more acute. You have taken out quick fire insurance to boost your own weak position.

The result is that Lucius is the one who has to shape any response. Any ‘threat’ you are making is well disguised. You are ‘framing’ the issue not as a crass blackmail bid resting on annoying assumptions about the other side and their priorities/attitude. In the movie version Reece assumes different disobliging things about Lucius/Batman. That they are ready to be blackmailed rather than allow Batman’s secret to be revealed. That Reece is strong; they are weak.

My approach is quite different. On the face of it it makes no disobliging assumptions.  Instead you present yourself as someone modest but rather crafty, inviting the other side to make constructive suggestions from their avowed position of strength. By doing this non-confrontational approach you start to explore their Positions, Interests and Needs and so look for outcomes that meet each side’s core requirements.

Who knows? Maybe Wayne Enterprises have a fund for paying off people like you who find out too much. Or maybe there could even be ways you could agree to work for Batman or Wayne Enterprises quietly in return for a goodly salary. Establish the principle, then haggle over the price.

The point?

There is no right way to set about this. But an approach that is non-committal and at least superficially realistic/reasonable/respectful stands a much better chance of achieving an agreed positive result. No-one, especially very powerful people, like to be told what they ‘have’ to do.

In any negotiation, create the space and time to check what the negotiation is all about. It may not be what you think. Invest in exploring.

Above all, don’t be afraid of silence. The more you talk, the more you might be giving away, and the less you listen to what is really going on.

* * * * *

The corollary of all that is that when acting from a position of obvious strength, you can afford to take different risks. Look at this very different negotiation and its wonderful dialogue, much quoted on this website:

The thing about chaos? It’s fair

Ah … NOW we’re talkin’.