This is an essay I wrote for a negotiation course1. We had to use the theory we had learnt to analyse a piece taken from the book of our choice. This rather ludicrous text (included at the bottom of the writeup) from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy bears up surprisingly well under analysis. It clearly shows Douglas Adams' deep understanding of human nature, especially when it comes to characters who feel that their whole life is some kind of dream and sometimes wonder whose it is and whether they're enjoying it.

The course drew much from Getting to Yes2, which defines a good negotiation as one which leaves both parties happy because the solution is objectively good for both parties. We were also introduced to the following concepts:

  • Your BATNA is your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement; it's what happens if the negotiation fails. You can use this as a standard by which to judge whether the proposed solution is to your advantage or not.
  • A negotiation can be broken down into the following phases:
    1. Contacting: You meet and get to know the opposing parties.
    2. Opening: Each side explains what his interests are, so that everyone is explicitly aware of them3.
    3. Expanding: Looking at all the possible solutions and see how these could serve everyone's interests. Often, something which you are ambivalent about will be very interesting to others.
    4. Contracting: Close the deal, making sure that it is fair to all and that everyone is better off than their BATNA.
  • Push and Pull are two styles of negotiation. It has been observed that the best negotiators do not mix styles and are able to choose the appropriate style when needed: push negotiation mainly involves giving information and proposing solutions; pull negotiation is based on asking questions and verifying information.

Presentation of the situation

Arthur Dent's house is about to be torn down to make way for a new bypass. Arthur is currently lying down in front of a bulldozer, in order to prevent it from approaching his house. Mr Prosser, the foreman in charge of the demolition process, has attempted to discuss the situation reasonably with Arthur, but has so far failed to convince him to move. Mr Prosser is under the additional strain both of being the person responsible for the demolition to be finished on time and of having his workers wanting to capitalise on the situation by exploiting little-known union regulations. His underlying interest in the negotiation is to change the situation, as he can only conceive its changing for the better. He is not a strong-willed man and is often intimidated by visions of wanton destruction sent to him by his direct – but unknown to him – ancestor, Genghis Khan.

Ford Prefect, an alien of human appearance and friend of Arthur Dent, has discovered that planet earth is to be destroyed within the next quarter of an hour and has come to warn Arthur. As Arthur does not know that Ford is from another planet, Ford has decided that the best way to explain the situation is by taking him to the nearest pub for a couple of drinks. Ford has a number of interests; among these are beer, finding a way of convincing Arthur to leave his chosen line of defense and doing this in a minimal amount of time as it is in rather short supply.

Development of the negotiation

Only Ford has the opportunity to analyse the situation, as he is the only one who has all the facts at his disposal. He sees that he will have no more success than Prosser in getting Arthur to move, however, he finds one solution and follows it through without compunction.

Most of the phases of the discussion are missing:

  1. The contacting phase is the pre-existing friendship between Ford and Arthur; given Ford's uncanny understanding of humans, it is no surprise that he dives straight into the discussion with Prosser.
  2. Ford chooses to present his view of the problem, that if a status quo is accepted, then Arthur does not actually have to be present. Prosser cannot thoroughly grasp this argument, as he does not know what Ford's interests are.
  3. Ford allows no opportunities for expanding, as this would give Prosser time to realise that if Arthur leaves, there is no longer anything preventing the demolition of his house.4
  4. The contracting is then briskly concluded, on Ford's terms only.

In the opening phase, Ford forces Prosser to accept his view of the problem by a series of suggestive questions. They culminate in a reasoning which only fails because it assumes that Prosser is a fair person who will not simply destroy Arthur's house once Arthur is away. The genius of Ford's method, is that, although the contacting phase was non-existent, his questions project him as being a very reasonable, rational person ; they also tell Prosser that he is assumed to be a reasonable, rational and fair person. Having been placed in such good light, Prosser is reluctant to behave in an unfair manner.

In the contracting phase, Ford convinces Prosser that, having agreed that Ford's point of view is reasonable, the only logical conclusion is that he must lie down in the mud to replace Arthur. Although this line of reasoning is flawed, Ford makes it seem logical and Prosser is reluctant appear unreasonable. Also, Prosser does not want to lose credibility; so he can't go back on his previous agreement. As a result, Prosser finds himself unable to inform Ford that his BATNA is far better than the proposed solution.

Ford's method, however devious it may be, is perfect and shows an intuitive understanding of how best to handle Prosser. The behaviours he uses are principally giving information (usually disguised as suggestive, closed questions) and proposing solutions, both of which are characteristic of push negotiation, essential for arriving at a rapid agreement. He also excludes Prosser by giving him no chance to come to terms with this unexpected and rather unorthodox line of thought. Although Ford follows none of the principles of negotiation as presented by Fisher and Ury, he does appear to have some understanding of Prosser's interests and he does make the agreement seem fair. There are only two occasions when he does not use push behaviour: He makes a concession at the end of the opening phase and accepts responsibility for Prosser's confusion at the beginning of the contracting phase. Both of these are extremely effective behaviours designed respectively to make Prosser think he is getting a good deal and to convince him that Ford is a reasonable person. It would seem that any other behaviour from Ford might have resulted in Prosser having an opportunity to gain the upper hand.

Prosser is basically unsuccessful. His behaviour alternates between eliciting information and confusion at the information received. Ford's suggestive questions force him into a pull position which he seems unused to. At the end, he checks his understanding of the situation, only to find himself relieved that – as usual – he is the "losing side" after all. Prosser allows Ford to manipulate him too much. He should have explained that he didn't understand before agreeing, he should have allowed himself to appear unreasonable and he should have realised that his BATNA was superior to the negotiated agreement. The pull behaviour is unsuccessful because Prosser does not use it to garner information about Ford's interests, and because he only half-uses it (the rest of his behaviour being confusion). Had Prosser stuck to what he knew, and informed Ford that his reasoning was ridiculous and that he was not going to agree, the end result, even a breakdown in the negotiation, would have been better for him.

Conclusion

An evaluation of the negotiation shows that the agreement is neither fair nor satisfactory to Prosser, that he is unlikely to want to negotiate with Ford again and that the whole process followed only Ford's line of negotiation. This is because Ford has no interest in improving his relationship with Prosser and because Prosser makes several mistakes, such as neglecting his BATNA and not trying to understand Ford's interests.

Fortunately, the outcome is irrelevant : Prosser destroys Arthur's house anyway and the world is destroyed a few minutes later. Arthur, on the apparent "winning team" appears just as foolish as Prosser, and so the balance of fairness is evened out. Although we don't approve of Ford, we can only applaud his cunning and deviousness, bringing the whole situation to such an unexpected close.


  1. Although this is a university course, it's an optional course given in English to engineering students whose first language is French. It was well graded but I did not hold myself to a high standard when writing. Making it really good would require a major rewrite. Node your homework. I actually chose this passage because I couldn't find anything else which I deemed suitable. And being an h2g2 fan helped.
  2. Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, (New York: Penguin Books, 1983).
  3. This may seem a little wishy-washy: your instinct will be telling you that the less your opponent knows, the less likely it is he will be able to trick you. Remember that it is usually in both your interests that a solution be found and that a dissatisfied party will feel cheated and won't want to get involved in other negotiations. Consider this as a collaborative solving effort, not a battle.
  4. We must remember that Ford's interest lies in convincing Arthur that he has a solution which enables them to go off to the pub together, not in preventing Prosser from destroying the house.
Thanks and kudos to Lometa who is one hoopy frood who knows where her towel is.


'Yes? Hello?' he called. 'Has Mr Dent come to his senses yet?'
'Can we for the moment,' called Ford, 'assume that he hasn't?'
'Well?' sighed Mr Prosser.
'And can we also all assume that he's going to be staying here all day?'
'So?'
'So all your men are going to be standing around all day doing nothing?'
'Could be, could be …'
Well, if you're resigned to doing that anyway, you don't actually need him to lie here all the time, do you?'
'What?'
You don't,' said Ford patiently, 'actually need him here.'
Mr Prosser thought about this.
'Well no, not as such …' he said, 'not exactly need ...' Mr Prosser was worried. He thought that one of them was not making a lot of sense.
Ford said, 'So if you would just like to take it as read that he's actually here, then he and I could slip off down to the pub for half an hour. How does that sound?'
Mr Prosser thought it sounded perfectly potty.
'That sounds perfectly reasonable …' he said in a reassuring tone of voice, wondering who he was trying to reassure.
'And if you want to pop off for a quick one yourself later on,' said Ford, 'we can always cover for you in return.'
'Thank you very much,' said Mr Prosser, who no longer knew how to play this at all, 'thank you very much, yes, that's very kind …' He frowned, then smiled, then tried to do both at once, failed, grasped hold of his fur hat and rolled it fitfully round the top of his head. He could only assume that he had just won.
'So,' continued Ford Prefect, 'if you would just like to come over here and lie down …'
'What?' said Mr Prosser.
'Ah, I'm sorry,' said Ford, 'perhaps I hadn't made myself fully clear. Somebody's got to lie in front of the bulldozers, haven't they? Or there won't be anything to stop them driving into Mr Dent's house, will there?'
'What?' said Mr Prosser again.
'It's very simple,' said Ford, 'my client, Mr Dent, says that he will stop lying here in the mud on the sole condition that you come and take over from him.'
'What are you talking about?' said Arthur, but Ford nudged him with his shoe to be quiet.
'You want me,' said Prosser, spelling out his new thought to himself, 'to come and lie there …'
'Yes.'
'In front of the bulldozer?'
'Yes.'
'Instead of Mr Dent.'
'Yes.'
'In the mud.'
'In, as you say, the mud.'
As soon as Mr Prosser realized that he was substantially the loser after all, it was as if a weight lifted itself off his shoulders: this was more like the world as he knew it. He sighed.
'In return for which you will take Mr Dent with you down to the pub?'
'That's it,' said Ford, 'that's it exactly.'
Mr Prosser took a few steps forward and stopped.
'Promise?' he said.
'Promise,' said Ford. He turned to Arthur.
'Come on,' he said to him, 'get up and let the man lie down.'
Arthur stood up, feeling as if he was in a dream.
Ford beckoned to Prosser who sadly, awkwardly, sat down in the mud. He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.

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