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Revenge is sweet. Sweets are not healthy for us, but they taste so darn good. That’s why we watch so many revenge movies which feel so wonderfully delicious.
I’m not the first to think that movies are a great way to illustrate mediation concepts. We can name tons of movies about fighting to get what you want. We’ve all seen movies that show one side exerting power over another. That’s what we all dream of: bending others to our will.
Real life is different from reel life. In actual life when you’re dealing with another person, you rarely get everything you want.
Internet posts generally rank the greatest negotiation movie of all time as “The Godfather.” And they usually cite the famous line, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
Which means making someone do everything you want by, in the movie, cutting off the head of his beloved racehorse and sticking it in his bed. If you could do that to someone, you probably would get what you want.
A more realistic example of negotiation in “The Godfather” is the wonderful scene when Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone calls a conference of the five families. They have been warring all over the streets of New York. They are killing each other. They are killing each other’s sons. They are living on mattresses cooking spaghetti in their sweaty undershirts. Everyone is vulnerable to attack anywhere they go. But worst of all, they are not able to do business, and war is very expensive.
Blood is flowing. Money is not. It’s the worst of times. After months of bitter warfare, including the killing of his oldest son, Vito Corleone calls a meeting.
Having just lost his oldest son, Vito Corleone is desolate. He is enraged. He wants vengeance. He wants them all dead. He wants to go back to his old life, quietly making money the old-fashioned way with gambling and prostitution.
But he wants other things even more. He wants his youngest son to be safe and return home. He wants to resume his business. In order to get what he wants most, he has to give in. Although he hates the idea of selling drugs, he has to agree to participate in it to meet the demands of the other families. So he does.
In a beautiful, heartfelt speech, Vito agrees to accept their demands to enter the drug trade. He agrees to share his political power and influence. He agrees to make peace and forgo further vengeance for the killing of his son. He makes the deal.
But he also has one term that is non-negotiable: the safety of his youngest son, Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, hiding in Italy.
In very explicit terms, Vito says the safety of Michael is the one term so dear he needs more than a promise they will not harm him. Vito says he is a “superstitious man” and that should anything happen to Michael in any way shape or form, he will retaliate terribly. The deal requires that the others become guarantors of Michael’s safety.
All agreeing, the deal is sealed with the customary Sicilian hugs and kisses. Everyone is hurting, but everyone got what they wanted most.
The first important takeaway from that scene is that you can’t negotiate in the past. You can only negotiate from where you are now.
I’m constantly telling plaintiffs that we cannot undo their injuries. No jury can fix them. No one can erase their tragedy. No one can restore what they really lost. Now, it’s just about money.
Second, anger does not solve our problems. Only when we let go of our anger can we move forward and make our lives better. This has always been a tough one for me personally, and I understand why movies glorify the power of anger. It is so satisfying to see the kidnapper-murderer-bully- terrorist just blown to smithereens.
The third takeaway from this scene is prioritizing your wants. Vito unequivocally does not want to get into drugs. He is absolutely certain that it will destroy the business. He has told them no, been shot, gone to war, put everyone in his family at risk, lost his son and incurred extreme economic loss. To get what he wants, he has to put the safety of his favorite son above his hate of the drug trade. He has to put the safety of his son above his unquenchable lust for revenge. He chokes on it. But he agrees to the deal.
Dealing with others is a continuous string of negotiations, big and small. You don’t always get what you want. You can’t have it all. You do have to walk away from some fights.
You don’t always get what you deserve. You have to make concessions because that sweet taste of revenge is a sugar high without real nourishment.
One of the great challenges of life is to try to reframe what you’re doing, not as sacrifice or giving up, but as moving forward toward your goal.
Besides — Vito gets what he wants a few powerful scenes later. That’s what makes it a movie.