Last night my wife and I were watching a really great, classic movie: Twelve Angry Men. We were watching the 1957 version with Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb and ten other fine actors. We have seen this movie many times over the years and enjoyed it from a new perspective each time. This time I viewed the program through the eyes of a negotiation coach. What I saw was an excellent example of a classic negotiation.
If you remember the movie you will recall that the jury comes into the room and almost immediately takes a vote on the guilt of a young man accused of murdering his father. The vote is 11 to 1 in favor of a guilty verdict. Only Juror Number 8 (Henry Fonda) votes not guilty. Over the course of the next hour and a half the jury changes course and unanimously finds the young man not guilty. How this happened was dependent upon several factors.
One of the most important factors in Juror Number 8’s ability to convince his fellow jurors was simply persistence. He came under loads of pressure to cave in, but didn’t. His refusal to immediately accede to the demands of others, however, was mixed with a great deal of humility. He didn’t threaten or berate his fellow jurors. Instead he treated the others with respect and through his actions and questions portrayed the problem as one that the jurors could solve together by building a mutual understanding. And he remained open to being convinced that a guilty verdict was possible.
Why was his strategy able to prevail? The reason is that, even in the face of very hostile challenges, Juror Number 8 did not react, he responded. When I say he did not react I mean he did not fall into the trap of blurting out a rejoinder whenever someone else made a accusatory, harsh, or emotional statement. Often times, at first, he didn’t say anything. When he did speak it was a response that supported his strategy not a reaction to the emotion that had just been expressed. He responded in the context of his argument. If he had been advised by a media consultant she might have told him to “stay on message.” That is what he did. Instead of cross-accusing, or emotionally challenging his adversaries, Juror Number 8 returned to the themes of his argument.
We have often advised clients to avoid emotional outbursts unless there is a very good, well-considered reason. An emotional outburst often makes enemies rather than converts; it makes people defensive and allows the conflict to escalate. An emotional outburst can take the negotiation off message. This happened to some of Juror Number 8’s opponents.
There is an art to staying on message. Juror Number 8 was a master of this art. He didn’t simply repeat the same rationale over and over. He asked questions. Often his question would begin with “Isn’t it possible…?” After this opening, he would raise a new question for the jury to consider. Perhaps one juror would respond “I don’t think it is possible” and another would say “Well, I don’t know, it may be possible.” The immediate temptation for Juror Number 8 would have been to say something like “There you see…!” But he didn’t do that. Instead, he often said “Lets test that idea.” Then, to the best of their ability (either by looking back over the evidence or conducting an experiment) the jury would see if the alternative he had proposed was, indeed, possible. In short, he helped jury members discover for themselves about the facts of the case.
Of course, all of this required that Juror Number 8 have a strategy before the deliberations began. Much of what he did and said was certainly unrehearsed (i.e., it was portrayed as being spontaneous), but to have carried it off the character played by Henry Fonda would have had to be thinking of his strategy before entering the jury room. He had doubts. He was pretty sure his fellow jurors did not share those doubts. He had to prepare.
Preparation should have included at least three components. First, he had to think about what his response would be if he should be the only vote for not guilty. Second, Juror Number 8 needed to decide which point of doubt he wanted to bring up to begin the negotiation and how to present that point. Third, he needed to know how he would transition from point to point.
In the movie, the transitions came when he gained supporters. As he gained converts to his cause Juror Number 8 had to decide how to react to the new members of his coalition. One option would have been to count each new addition as a triumph. However, the Henry Fonda character didn’t do that; he allowed others to record each success. Instead, he focused on his argument, on his next point.
This would have been tricky, because new coalition members would want to bring up points that they now saw as supporting their new-found commitment to a not guilty verdict. Those new points might have derailed the argument put forward by Juror Number 8. Even with that consideration, he let the new coalition members take the lead on their points, always encouraging the jury to explore the possibilities together. But he was ready to introduce his next item for consideration. Juror Number 8 remained humble and respectful as he guided the jury through the decision-making process.
It was a masterful performance. But, of course, in the movie it was a scripted performance. As negotiators, we never have that luxury! We cannot script our performance, but we can plan. We can also remain true to a few important principles of negotiation practice: develop a strategy, remain respectful, encourage mutual understanding, support allies, and stay on message.