Before there was the duel, there was the negotiation. And it is hard to find a better example of what not to do when trying to save face and resolve conflict than can be seen in the letters between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

The incident begins when words leaks to the press that Hamilton made sharply critical remarks about Burr in front of others at a private dinner. Upon receiving word of this, Aaron Burr – having had it up here with Hamilton’s seemingly personal and malicious comments over the past years – decides to initiate an “affair of honor”, which is an elegant name for the ritual of challenging someone to a duel.

In his first letter to Hamilton beginning the negotiations, Burr starts by proposing that Hamilton make a “prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or denial” of whatever he said on that occasion, especially whatever was implied by the word ‘despicable’, used by a witness to describe the accusations.

If there’s ever an example of how to get a conflict resolution off to the wrong foot, it can be found in Hamilton’s first response. Instead of expressing any regret, Hamilton’s makes a fiery counter-proposal that Burr describe something specific to which he could address, flatly refusing to “enter into an explanation upon a basis so vague as that which you have adopted.” Hamilton ends the letter by telling Burr that he is confident that after more reflection he will come to “see the matter in the same light” as him. And, that if he does not or cannot, Hamilton is prepared to accept the consequences of the occasion – i.e. a duel. 

Burr responds back escalating the exchange and banter, as tends to happen when negative defensive emotions are involved. First, he rejects Hamilton’s proposal to provide more specifics. In Burr’s view, whatever was implied or said that could be taken by others against his honor and character requires restitution. Second, he decides to escalate the negotiation even further, adding a negative concession. Now, because of Hamilton’s tone and his outright refusal, Burr believes he is owed an even bigger apology than was asked for in the first letter, ominously stating, “Your letter has furnished me with new reasons for requiring a definite reply.”

Noticing the dangerous turn of the negotiations, advisers to Hamilton and Burr desperately attempt to find some way for the parties to resolve the conflict and save face. However, the parties soon learn that Burr has taken defensive measures to ensure Hamilton cannot wiggle his way out without a full apology. He increases his demands by having his adviser relay that Hamilton would now need to a make blanket apology for anything he has ever said about Burr and his character, at any time, ever.

While Hamilton’s final letter does not reduce the combative tone, it is worth noting that he does provide Burr with a subtle last minute opening to give them both a way to avoid the coming hostilities, writing, “I have no other answer to give than that which has already been given. If you mean anything different admitting of greater latitude, it is requisite you should explain”.

In his final letter, Burr declines the offer, responding in a firm and formal manner explaining his belief why a duel is warranted and why his original demand for an acknowledgement based on general remarks was requested. In building his case, he also brings backs for consistency Hamilton’s challenging and daring remark that if Burr could not alter his views to match his own then a duel would be inevitable.

As we know, the duel happens, and things go tragically awry. Shortly after being hit by Burr’s fire, Alexander Hamilton, one of our greatest founding fathers is dead. 

What can we learn over 200 years later from this horrible negotiation to resolve their conflict?

First is to recognize that although we thankfully no longer have formal duels, it is very easy for our disagreements, especially when personal, to transform into harmful “affairs of honor”. It is still true that when we feel insulted or disrespected we get defensively emotional, and this defensive emotion tends to create an escalation that guides us into a destructive path of which becomes difficult to reverse.

On top of our escalation-prone defenses is the consistency trap. Often times, we say things and do things that we later regret, yet because of our social desire to maintain a consistent public face or self image we feel compelled to stand by or defend them. Usually, when conflict is resolved and face is saved, parties find a way to avoid this consistency trap with selective listening, empathetic understanding, or creatively adjusting their proposals, something Hamilton and Burr were unable to bring themselves to do.

Finally, in many everyday encounters much less dramatic we also have the tendency to speak to each other in two different languages. For example, in Burr’s letters to Hamilton he is speaking a language of common sense. In his view, it is common sense to know that if Hamilton’s remarks implied Burr had done acts that were considered despicable it is enough to warrant an apology. However, in Hamilton’s letters to Burr he is speaking in a completely different mode both legalistic and abstract. In his view, the remarks do not yet warrant an apology, because despicable could mean any number of things. It could be a soft insult, it could be a hard insult. How is he supposed to offer a genuine apology when he cannot speak to its grade?

While it might be tempting to fault Hamilton for this, how many of us have been through this same experience, where we find ourselves speaking in two different languages and the fight continues and escalates because neither party is willing looking at it from the same frame or perspective as the other person?

Unfortunately, far too often…

In conclusion, if there’s anything we can learn from the negotiations between Hamilton and Burr, I believe it is the following:

  • Because of our ritualistic need to protect face, “affairs of honor” (and pride) still exist, and these encounters spark defensive emotions, which can in turn spark unhelpful escalation.
  • We have a tendency to fall into a consistency trap, when we say or do things we feel we have to rationalize, justify, stand behind, or defend later – even though it might not be in our best interest.
  • We have a tendency to speak past each other in our own personal languages. Languages that suit our view of the situation, languages that make it easy for us to rationalize our behavior, and languages that are convenient for our consciences.

Though we live in far different times, I believe we can learn from Hamilton and Burr’s tragic negotiation to recognize and avoid these tendencies when resolving harmful conflicts in the present and hopefully less often in the future.

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