Before The Duel – What We Can Learn About Conflict Resolution From The Negotiation Between Hamilton and Burr

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.


Brian Cashman’s Face Saving Press Conference

Last week, Yankees General Manager and top Negotiator Brian Cashman had to face the media for the first time after the team’s devastating ALCS loss against the arch rival Houston Astros.

At a certain point things took a harsher turn, resulting in the press conference becoming more newsworthy than it would normally be after Cashman got into what was widely described as a “testy” exchange with Sweeny Murti, a leading team commentator and New York sports personality.

The exchange took place after Murti asked if Cashman and the Yankees owners regretted “passing” on three star pitchers who were available before the 2019 season, all of whom are now playing in the World Series for either the Houston Astros or Washington Nationals. (A brief video of the exchange can be found here:

While neither Cashman nor Murti did anything wrong, one would assume they would probably like to avoid the argumentative appearance of the exchange given the opportunity to try again.

So what can we as managers and negotiators learn from this noticeably uncomfortable interaction?

Cashman’s very human response was a great reminder that we can often get defensive when our decisions are questioned, something that is especially true when we’re in the presence of others and when appearing anything close to incompetent means losing face.

Further, according to much evidence in Social Psychology, our impulse to react in a “fight” mode can be even more pronounced when the implied incompetence relates to an area that we subconsciously view as core to our self identity, something most managers and negotiators who’ve experienced great success in the past usually do.

I know at least for myself it can be easy to fall victim to emotions, making strangely cutting remarks either in my head or out loud when it feels like my decisions are being second guessed. In these scenarios, I try to remind myself that humility is more important than ego, and part of being a manager or negotiator who makes important decisions for a group of people means answering for the consequences of our decisions.

Of course, this is certainly way easier said than done. However, it’s well worth encouraging ourselves to at least try and avoid this very human tendency as much as possible. Also, to remind ourselves that we do have the power, it’s just a matter of having the discipline to use it.

Along these lines, Steven R. Covey shares a powerful quote from Victor Frankel in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” –

Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

The key for managers and negotiators involves the habit of giving ourselves and others the space, so that our responses can be less “fight” and instead much more face friendly for everyone involved in the interaction.


Being ghosted is one of the common phenomenons that salespeople experience day in and day out. After so much perceived “rejection”, it can be easy for anyone to fall into the trap of believing their prospect is no longer interested.

According to face theory, the most common way that we deal with face threats to ourselves and others is avoiding. This means that instead of meeting potential conflict or an uncomfortable interaction head on, we are much more likely to simply avoid the interaction entirely. 

For this reason, it’s important for us in sales to constantly question our belief that the prospect is no longer interested. First of all, the world doesn’t usually work in such black and white terms. Just because a prospect does not respond does not mean they are not interested at all. What ghosting more likely means is that I’m not as interested as I was, and that’s a highly complicated and potentially awkward conversation that certainty threatens face for those involved.

The unfortunate sting of being ghosted deals with our awareness of the fact that responding actually takes very little time, even for the busiest of people. However, we should also remain aware that we can easily all feel too busy for a not so urgent conversation about how we’re not as much in love with a person (or a product) as we once were.

Once Upon a Time in Washington D.C…

The year was 1969, and Henry Kissinger was shortly to become the world’s most famous negotiator. 

One of his early victories as National Security Advisor was getting the Sovet Union to reduce their restrictions on Jewish emigration, resulting in tens of thousands being able to leave the communist country over just a few years time.

How did Kissinger pull off this extravagant deal? He did so by wisely trading face with his Soviet counterparts.

The deal was that Kissinger and President Nixon would recognize this favor from the Soviets, while also keep the arrangement to themselves, not taking any public credit for the increase in Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union. This of course allowed the Soviet leaders to save face, since no one would be hip to the fact that this favor had been granted.

All was going according to plan until 1972 when an ambitious Senator named Henry “Scoop” Jackson decided he wanted Congress to negotiate the issue of Jewish emigration, publicly and with a hard line stance.

Trying desperately to rescue the successful understanding and now playing middle man, Kissinger creatively designed a new way for all parties to save face on the world stage.

Instead of asking the Soviet leaders to agree to the demand of Jackson to meet a certain high number (something they would never do), he asked the Soviets to simply declare that they would “allow” levels of emigration that nobody realized were already happening. Importantly, this would include an estimate of future emigration made by the Soviets themselves.

After securing this commitment, it seemed that Kissinger could bring back to Jackson something he could work with. Couldn’t he?

Unfortunately, it turned out not to be, as Kissinger learned that Jackson and Congress were far less sensitive to the face needs of the Soviets, and would not accept anything less than a public commitment to an American target of near 100,000 emigrants.

So why after such creative negotiating by Kissinger did Jackson refuse to go along?

Jackson declined because of the unspoken reality that sometimes making any deal means losing too much face, and for this reason such negotiators who appear to be acting in good faith know all along that they are not.

This turned out to be the case for Jackson, and the ever savvy Kissinger had been around long enough in Washington D.C. to know this time he would not be riding off into the Potomac sunset with a victory.

Expression Games – Why Erving Goffman and Malcolm Gladwell Believe We’re All Secret Agents

In his brilliant new book “Talking To Strangers”, Malcolm Gladwell takes an extremely close look at how we’re often deceived by others – until it’s too late.

He does this by recasting in vivid detail a wide range of famous cases, including the stories of the exposed Cuban spy Ana Montes, Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, and others.

Two of his central propositions, backed up by much evidence, are that we default to the belief that others are telling the truth, and also believe in a myth that tells us the expressions of others provide transparency towards true intentions and emotions. 

Interestingly, it has been exactly fifty years since another Canadian, the influential Sociologist Erving Goffman, published an essay called “Expression Games”, which examines this topic from a similar perspective, tales of spies included.

In the essay, Goffman breaks down strategic social interaction into a series of moves,  including what he calls naive moves, unwitting moves, covering moves, uncovering moves, and counter uncovering moves. 

First, naive and unwitting moves represent what Gladwell describes in his book as “transparency”, in that what is viewed is believed to be a transparent representation of what a person is consciously or not consciously expressing. For example, if I were to yell, shout, jump, or clap when a favorite athlete scored for what is known to be my favorite team, it could reasonably be viewed as an unwitting move or naive move by anyone observing. 

Covering moves, on the other hand, are strategic expressions that are meant for show, in that they attempt to hide or obscure what’s really happening. For example, when we smile warmly at someone we despise, put sensitive information out of sight, script our responses before an interview, or adjust the privacy settings on Social Media we’re acting in the mode of covering moves.  

Uncovering moves arrive once the game is on, and also after we have sensed that something is a foot. For instance, questions asked by lawyer, detective, or negotiator are uncovering moves in that they’re designed to learn the true intentions, knowledge, or motivations of another past what can be gathered from their apparently sincere professions. 

Finally, a counter uncovering move is used to negate or neutralize a previously perceived uncovering move before or after it happens. Think here of the baseball team who sends a false pinch-hitter to the batter’s box to confuse the other team, or the parent who puts out a false present knowing their child simply can’t resist taking a peek under the wrapping.

Ultimately, Goffman concludes his essay with the following passage:

In every social situation we can find a sense in which once participant will be an observer with something to gain from assessing expressions, and another will be a subject with something to gain from the process…which renders agents a little like us all and all of us a little like agents.

Like Gladwell, he believed that the real truth (if such a thing exists) is incredibly hard to detect, and for this reason we should take the observable expressions of others with more than a grain of salt – almost as if suspecting the other person was a secret agent because of this.

Positive Politeness – Strategies & Tactics

According to Politeness Theory, there are three key strategies that salespeople and negotiators use to minimize FTAs: claiming common ground, conveying cooperation, and fulfilling wants.

Claiming Common Ground 

Within this first strategy are the tactics of noticing, exaggerating, seeking agreement, and avoiding disagreement.

Noticing is accomplished by paying compliments, such when we comment on something someone is wearing, or someone’s non-physical ability like their sharp wit or keen intellect.

Exaggerating is accomplished through words, tone of voice, and body language, using expressions like “This will blow you away!”, “You’re not going to believe this…”, or “It’s a no brainer!”

Seeking agreement is accomplished through safe topics and repetition. The classic example is bringing up something about the environment like the weather. Accordingly, when the other person beats us to the punch, we’re likely to use repetition responding “It is a beautiful day!”

Avoiding disagreement is accomplished through token agreement and pseudo agreement.

Token agreement means simultaneously finding the words to neither agree or disagree. However, to the other person it seems like we’re agreeing.

Finally, pseudo agreement is vocalizing “done deal” agreement when no such agreement has been established. (Think pushy salesperson.)

Conveying Cooperation

Within this strategy are the tactics of acknowledging wants, making offers and promises, being optimistic, including, giving or asking for reasons, and assuming reciprocity. 

Demonstrating knowledge of wants has worked for me and goes something like this: “So I know you said you’re not interested in XYZ at this time, however I highly recommend considering it. Here’s why…”

Absolutely imperative are the three magic words, “I know you said…” Using this ledge I’ve been amazed at what people will consider – or reconsider – when we’ve proven our ability to listen.

Making offers and promises that are intended to benefit the prospect comprise our bread and butter as salespeople and negotiators. Based on my observation, fortune favors the bold. And those who are unafraid to promise.

Including involves statements such as “”Let’s do this…”, and “How about we..” This is something we learn early because it always flies under the radar. For example, when has anyone ever said, “What do you mean we?’ I’ve personally never heard it happen. Instead, we politely go along. 

Being optimistic means assuming the sale and this is always the best approach. Good closing is simply confirming all necessary details and confirming all necessary details exudes optimism.

Giving or asking for reasons is especially effective for overcoming objections. When we’re able to stack reasons for moving forward it provides a sense of certainty the way rubbing two sticks together starts a fire. However, even more powerful than providing reasons is asking why not do something? Questions like “why not? create the same effect as combing a match with swift friction.

Finally, assuming reciprocity is what we traditionally think of as “give and take”, “an eye for an eye”, and “the golden rule”. If you give me X, I’ll give you Y. This is what we do when we trade concessions, give a little, or bend a little with the expectation of getting a little in return. Justice is always required.

Fulfilling Wants 

Within this strategy there is only one tactic and it involves giving what is desired, either tangible or intangible.

For example, we sometimes provide tangible concessions against our good judgement to create momentum or engender goodwill in a negotiation. However, we can also provide the intangibles, like the ability to save face or stroking the ego.

The true art is finding as many ways to give as possible, while never giving too easy, and always remembering that even wants prefer to be worked for.

Why “Let me check with my Manager…” is an incredibly effective ritual

Last weekend, I went car shopping and was offered a slight discount on the initial price under two conditions:

First, the salesperson had to convince his manager to approve this special discount. Second, I had to commit to purchasing on the spot if his gamble was approved. 

After I affirmed on both counts, he disappeared briefly before returning with a big smile and his hand extended. After receiving the good news I enthusiastically shook his hand and signed where needed.

The question is, why is this predictable and familiar ritual so effective?

As someone who’s been on all sides of the equation many times (salesperson, customer, manager), I can think of three reasons. 

First, as the customer I get to save face by proving I’m a competent buyer, neither weak or easy to take advantage of.

On the other hand, the salesperson gets to save face by proving both to themselves and their manager that they can competently handle a tough and resistant buyer.

Not to be left out, the mysterious manager also gets to gain face by demonstrating the power and ability to approve something a lowly salesperson could not.

He or she can even reasonably stake a claim for MVP, as the deal technically couldn’t have been completed without his or her generosity!

Second, “let me check with my manager” provides an easy story – more importantly, a cover story.

In his book “All Marketers Are Liars”, Seth Godin explains why people buy. His ultimate thesis is that people don’t buy facts or products, they buy stories.

While this is true, I believe the particular story Seth is talking about is most important before the purchase. There is a second important story that inevitably arrives after the purchase and it is the story of how we acquired the product.

The beauty of “let me check with my manager” is that it provides an easy to pass along tale which describes our feats of strength as follows:

I am came in and they told me a certain price. Then I played hardball – Like I should! Then I got an even better price – their bottom line. How do I know this? Because the salesperson had to leave my presence to speak to the manager – even convince him!

Third,“let me check with my manager” works because we know it’s a ritualistic charade.

However, we are keen enough to realize what is truly being offered is an easy to accept dance to which the steps are predictable and inviting.

Accepting the dance implies the unspoken truth that we all want this sale to happen, yet neither of us can appear too quick or eager in the moment, or even after the fact.

So we decide to go ahead and disregard the charade. For the sake of the time we’ve spent, the sake of the time we can save, and the satisfying feeling of progress.

The spirit being, Let’s not lose what we’ve built – Shall we?

Giving freedom when it counts

One time, a customer asked if they could try my product. I responded, “You can…but I don’t recommend it. I recommend getting started now, and here’s why.”

Two minutes later, they bought.

Sales Trainer Grant Cardone responds to “I’m not buying today” with “That’s fine, most people don’t buy on the first day. Most people get information. What information can I provide to help you make your decision?”

In fact, numerous studies in Social Psychology have demonstrated that adding “you are free to accept or deny this offer” after making a request dramatically increases compliance.

The beauty of this technique is that it’s not a technique at all. Not manipulation, and not timidity.

It’s a recognition of reality. People are always free to do what they want and ultimately will.

When it counts, don’t be afraid of reminding this.

3 Key Factors in Politeness – Distance, Power, Impositions


In Politeness theory, distance describes the degree of social familiarity between parties, such as the difference between a close friend and a complete stranger.

When distance is high, we tend to minimize our FTAs (face threatening actions), and focus on off record (implied) requests. Conversely, when distance is low and familiarity high, we tend to increase our FTAs, often feeling comfortable enough with the other party to make on record (direct) requests when needed.

Further, in attempting to reduce distance, we’ll often provide forms of payment in positive face, demonstrating liking and approval of the other person in the hopes of building a closer relationship.


In this context, power describes the range both formal and perceived, such as the difference between a middle manager and CEO. When power is in our favor, we tend to feel comfortable risking FTAs, as well as using on record requests. Conversely, when power is not in our favor, we tend to feel less comfortable risking FTAs and more comfortable using off record requests.

In attempting to reduce power differences, we’ll often provide forms of payment in negative face, demonstrating respect and deference in the hopes of making sure our requests are considered.


Impositions describes the range of difficulty for complying with our requests, including the difference between asking a colleague for five minutes compared to an hour, or asking a customer to spend $10 versus $10,000. When making smaller imposition, we tend to feel more comfortable risking FTAs and even using on record requests. When making larger impositions, we tend to feel less comfortable risking FTAs and more comfortable using off record requests.

Finally, in attempting to reduce the impact of our impositions, we’ll often provide forms of payment in positive face to create a feeling of reciprocity, as well as negative face to create a feeling of freedom through the ability to accept or deny our request.

I’ll share a recent example to illustrate.

This morning, upon sitting down with my laptop to write this post, my wife politely posed the following question:

“Do you mind if we turn on the air conditioning?” 

Now, after 4 years of marriage, why did she instinctively and intuitively use this highly off record message? First, asking “Do you mind” serves as a payment in negative face, which in this instance represents my being unimpeded from getting settled, opening the laptop, and starting to write.

Second, asking “if we” can turn on the air conditioning, is another form of payment in negative face, creating the opportunity for me to say yes I’ll do it, making it my choice.

Thus, once I begin my walk to the thermostat, the perfect turn of a polite FTA is completed, accounting for zero social distance, roughly equal power (advantage her), and the smallest of daily marital impositions.

Why there’s more to Politeness than meets the eye

According to Politeness theory, selling and negotiating are among the most delicate of social interactions. This is because our offers and requests – the essence of what we do – are experienced as “FTAs” (Face threatening actions) by both parties.

Having built on the work of Erving Goffman, the authors of this theory distinguish between two types face. The first is called positive face, which is the universal desire to be liked and approved of by others. The second is called negative face, which is the universal desire to be unimpeded personally and not imposed upon by others.

Since we as salespeople and negotiators usually want to make the sale or close the deal, we often cannot avoid attempting FTAs. Once committed, we have two options: on record messages and off record messages. On record messages are direct and unambiguous, with high risk to face value. Off record messages are indirect and widely ambiguous, with lower risk to face value.

Finally, in addition to on/off record considerations, we should consider selecting messages based on which version of face is most being threatened. Paying others in positive politeness will help us reinforce positive face, while paying others in negative politeness will help us reinforce negative face.  

In the next post, we’ll take a deeper glance at these factors and what they mean for us as salespeople and negotiators.