Negotiating with Michael Scott

Negotiating with Michael Scott

Michael: Just hold on, please! Okay, if we do lose/lose, neither of you gets what you want. Do you understand? You … you would both lose. Now I need to ask you, do you want to pursue a lose/lose negotiation? [1]


In the hit TV show The Office, manager Michael Scott provides an interesting case study in leadership. Often, Scott is awkward, self-absorbed, inappropriate, unprofessional, and woefully unqualified for the job set before him.

At other times, he is winsome, genuine, generous, and surprisingly successful. In other words, he’s like you and me.

This is no more true than when Scott attempts to broker peace between two employees using a binder filled with conflict resolution tips. In the end, although Scott claims victory over the conflict, little changes. However, Scott, blinded by his recent “success,” sets out to solve EVERY conflict in the office, with similar results. The episode ends with him having to Photoshop smiles onto his employees’ faces in a group photo because everyone is upset. [2]

Ministers and church leaders would do well to heed Scott’s efforts and courage rather than his methods. But laudable as they may be, Scott ends up living in a fantasy of his own making wherein he is a hero and his employees are happy.

In truth, though most ministers and church leaders may not know how to use Photoshop, many HAVE learned how to fabricate a smile or two, and more than a few have relational dark alleys in their churches they have chosen not to walk down for fear of what they may find. The result is that church leaders often feel helpless and ill-equipped in the face of church conflict.

book cover, Negotiating the Nonnegotiable

But before you reach for your best sackcloth and start stocking up on ashes, a better route might be to pick up Daniel Shapiro’s latest offering Negotiating the Nonnegotiable. [3]

A seasoned negotiator and founder of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, Shaprio has packed more information about conflict and leadership into one book than may actually be legal. Indeed, the one downside of the book is the sheer amount of information therein.

Yet, Negotiating the Nonnegotiable is indispensable reading for the minister or church leader for this simple reason: this book’s primary focus is on how to resolve the MOST emotionally charged conflicts. Shapiro himself notes that the deepest conflicts happen at the deepest level of the human experience, a place where he locates spirituality (p. 146).

With that in mind, Shapiro presents a very nuanced and linear approach to solving these sorts of problems. [4] The book builds to the end in such a way that it pays off for the patient reader, and thus gives much-needed time to digest his essential concepts. However, for our purposes, here are a few highlights.

  1. Identity is king. The cornerstone of Shapiro’s method is rooted in the idea that all conflicts, but especially the most emotional ones, are essentially clashes of identity. This may not sound groundbreaking, but Shapiro’s discussion of how identity is formed, and how it is more malleable than we think, is enlightening. He uses the acronym BRAVE to talk about how beliefs, rituals, allegiances, values, and emotionally meaningful experiences (p. 15) form the pillars of identity. From there, he posits that ALL conflict happens when one of these pillars is threatened. Shapiro does an excellent job of expounding on these, and church leaders will find more than a few connecting points.

  2. People in conflict become tribal. Again, not revolutionary at first blush, but Shapiro does an excellent job at showing how the tribal mind lures those in conflict away from a communal mindset in five specific ways: vertigo, repetition compulsion, taboos, assault on the sacred, and identity politics (p. 26). His comments on these and the above set the stage for the last half of the book. Church leaders would do well to pay special attention to the sections on vertigo (a state of mind in conflict that diminishes the capacity to self-reflect, stereotypes the other party, and loses sense of time) and repetition compulsion (a dysfunctional pattern that people in conflict repeat). Again, though Shapiro is not writing for church leaders, his very language provides a helpful matrix not just for thinking through conflict. He also provides a set of tools, especially for the minister, to work through emotional wounds that lead to repeating patterns of conflict (p. 63, 163-169), developing language for how to talk about what someone else considers sacred (p. 102), how to develop the relational connection required to bring harmony in a conflict (p. 135), and even how to apologize in a way that will be interpreted as an apology and not a defense (p. 173).

  3. Most conflict happens because people do not know each other well. Shapiro’s methods and research lead the careful reader to conclude that much conflict happens because people do not take the time to get to really know one another. Of course, this particular point should sting the church more than most. Shapiro recommends getting to know one another’s stories in the midst of a conflict to better understand one another (p. 96). Apparently, one of the very good things about conflict is its uncanny ability to get someone to reveal their “true selves” in the very best (not just the worst) sense of the word. People are passionate about things that are close to their heart. And though Shapiro notes that all efforts to resolve conflict must highlight transcendent connections (p. 190), something that shouldn’t be a problem for the church, the real meat of conflict resolution is getting both parties to admit their identity to the other, and maybe to themselves, for the first time.

This is of course only a small sampling of what Negotiating the Nonnegotiable has to offer. Other gems include being able to choose and know the difference between pain and suffering (p. 165), the dangers of creating a NEGATIVE identity that highlights what someone is against instead of what they stand for (p. 120), and how both active listening (p. 149) and allowing a space for venting (p. 216) are doomed to fail in an emotionally charged conflict.

All this and more are embedded in Negotiating the Nonnegotiable for the minister or church leader willing to go the distance with Shapiro. However, be warned that Shapiro’s method requires a great amount of self-reflection. A minister with recent wounds may have some difficulty with some of the exercises necessary to grasp his method, particularly when thinking through the different aspects of identity related to being unappreciated or disrespected (p. 149). In this vein, Shapiro’s work offers not just a chance of learning some new skills, but of starting a journey of healing and understanding. This type of self-knowledge is much needed in many church leadership teams today, but will not be easy.

Then again, neither is Photoshop.


[1] “Conflict Resolution.” The Office. NBC. 4 May 2006. Television.


[3] Daniel Shapiro, Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts (New York: Penguin, 2016).

[4] A method he has personally used and perfected in heated discussions ranging from marriage counseling to being part of a group commissioned by the mayor of New York City to decide what to do when faced with building a mosque near ground zero of the 9/11 attacks. He tells this story at the end of chapter 13 in this book.

A Tribute to Dr. John Willis

A Tribute to Dr. John Willis

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