I am a good negotiator. I understand the relationship between the value we place and the values we hold. I know that intangibles matter, and that there are no bank vaults in heaven. I know that it is rarely if ever the case in my personal or professional negotiations that it comes down to destroying the village in order to save it. I can walk away without burning all my bridges.
My father has a remarkable ability to turn vocal adversaries into staunch allies. Once, when he was a young headmaster at a struggling boarding school where our family roots go deep, he promoted one of his harshest critics to a position of leadership that grew to a close partnership. He saw something in this individual that was keeping him from reaching his potential and turned a potential threat into an opportunity. It does not always work out this way, but when it does the results can be astounding. Abraham Lincoln did something similar with his cabinet, and in many cases won the admiration and effective partnership of his former opponents.
I am not, by inclination, a cutthroat player of zero sum games. I do not consider negotiation a game at all. It is often possible to get an excellent deal that benefits more than one party. It is sometimes possible to get an acceptable deal that improves with age if tended with care.
Especially in land protection transactions, the best outcomes take both patience and clarity of communication to achieve. At the end of the day, the conservation organization has more leverage than it might appear to a small nonprofit staffed by volunteers as it negotiates with high net worth individuals who are used to corporate business transactions. Saving land, especially family land, is a different animal than mergers and acquisitions, and takes a different sensitivity to qualitative values than simply determining the appraised value of real estate.
Negotiations in my personal relationships are most satisfying when I end up feeling good about my motivation for generosity. There was a time in my life when I found it very hard to say no. Now I am more concerned with when and how to say it. If I have an Achilles Heel, it is that I would prefer to be liked than to get what I want by being difficult. I am quick to accept responsibility for my own mistakes, and am getting better at discerning which are mine to own and which belong to another. I have a temper, and work hard to suppress it. I have learned how to give criticism and express displeasure effectively in some conflict situations and am still learning in others. I do not chew out ineffective or unhelpful people, but neither do I choose to continue to do business with them.
Wendell Berry in The Mad Farmer's Manifesto challenges us to "Love someone who does not deserve it." I would recast this injunction as embracing opportunities to be generous when there is no obligation or expectation that we would do so. Goodwill often stills the troubled water. My grandmother used to speak about unkind silences, those missed opportunities to praise and acknowledge, and I find that with anything less than mortal adversaries, this can lead to better relations.
I say all this as someone who is preparing to walk into court tomorrow morning and finalize a divorce from my partner of nearly 20 years (15 of them as husband and wife). I see this not as a failure but as an investment in the future of our family. There is hurt and resentment, certainly, and doubt and pain, but there is also quietness and clear-eyed confidence. Some doors are closed, new windows are opened, and the bridges that remain are maintained by us both and are crossed by the children we cherish. It is an acceptable outcome, the best of all workable options, and has the potential to improve with age.