Negotiation Lessons from the Movie "Draft Day"

  • Published
  • By Richard P. Barbour
  • Air Force Negotiation Center, Air University, Maxwell AFB, AL

Negotiation consumes our lives and is a skill worth improving. I enjoy watching movies for the excitement and entertainment they provide. I especially like movies involving sports; however, when you throw negotiations into the mix, then I really enjoy them! Most of my professional life deals with negotiation and meditation, so watching movies from this point of view really changes the experience. We all negotiate more than we realize. Whether it is where we are going for lunch to who is taking the 2pm meeting, or what time the kids are going to bed; it consumes us daily. 

The Air Force Negotiation Center (AFNC) defines negotiation as a communication process between two or more parties. This process may range from an open and cordial discussion with a free exchange of information as parties cooperatively seek to satisfy common interests to something closed and adversarial, where parties argue and stick to their positions. Positions and interests initially define a negotiation (positions being what I want and interests are why I want it). 

“Draft Day” is a movie centered on the Cleveland Browns football team’s general manager (Sonny). He has the responsibility of who to select in the upcoming draft. The film quickly puts Sonny in numerous difficult situations during one of the most stressful and significant days of his career. Sonny is inundated with not only the challenges associated with the draft picks, but also has to deal with the stress, emotion, time crunch, and pressures from multiple sources as he is dealing with some of the most important decisions he will ever make in his professional life. We often make poor negotiation decisions based on factors that are very similar to Sonny’s situation. In this article, I will look at five issues in the movie and how Sonny dealt with them during the course of the day. Those five are: preparation, trust, power & influence, communication, and negotiation strategies. 

People regularly fail to properly prepare for a negotiation or consider their Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement or BATNA (simply an alternative if you fail to make a deal). Ben Franklin said it best: “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” While negotiations are generally unpredictable, taking time to know not only your own interests, but making an educated guess about your opposite’s interests is also important. In the movie, Sonny and his ‘war room’ staff where very thorough with the pre-draft analysis on the two most important draft picks they were considering. However, in life as in a negotiation, not all the information is available up front. New information causes change and oftentimes it happens very quickly; you must be ready to carefully respond to emerging information and resist the temptation to react. The infamous Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” How will you respond when you are punched in the mouth? Cleveland possessed the #7 pick (their BATNA) when Seattle called and offered to trade the #1 pick. This changed everything Cleveland had been working on and forced them to contemplate a different direction. While preparing for a negotiation, attempt to see all sides from as many angles as possible and work to limit the surprises. You will not be able to predict everything in a negotiation, but solid preparation is always beneficial. 

Trust is the foundation of effective human interaction. In the absence of trust, it is difficult to make the ‘best’ deal available; however, blindly giving trust often times involves risk. Harvard Professor Deepak Malhotra states, “all negotiations involve risk. That is why establishing trust is crucial.” At the AFNC we typically look at two types of trust, personal and process. Personal trust is established between two people who share similar values and/or interests (such as in a close-knit family). Process trust is established though mutual agreement on procedures, institutions, or structures (you trust the bank to process your money as you direct even though you do not need to know the people doing it). Sonny showed trust throughout the movie with the various people he encountered. A lot of this trust appears to stem from previous relationships/dealings he had with those people. Stephen Covey, in his book The Speed of Trust, describes the importance of trust: “Low trust creates hidden agendas, politics, interpersonal conflict, interdepartmental rivalries, win-lose thinking, and defensive and protective communication.” When Sonny was seeking information on the apparent #1 draft pick, he was having trouble ‘trusting’ the information. We have all experienced this at some point in our negotiation lives. People don’t always tell the truth. Eventually, Sonny went with his gut and trusted his instincts and selected his original pick (even though he could have conceivably acquired him without trading three #1 picks). This did not go over well with anyone in the Cleveland organization and Sonny spends the rest of the movie working to build that trust back between himself and the ‘war room’ staff. Once you lose trust, it is difficult to gain it back. 

Power is the ability to control outcomes or gain desired outcomes. There are many forms of power (legitimate, expert, reward, coercive, influential, etc...) all of which may influence/change the negotiation. Another thought to consider is: ‘do I use the power I have to gain an advantage over the other person or should I share this power?’ An interesting note about negotiations is how power can shift in a hurry. One minute you have the power, then something changes and in turn so does the power. Sonny begins with very little power when Seattle calls and offers the #1 pick for basically Cleveland’s future. The Brown’s owner previously expressed his need for Sonny to make a ‘Splash’ in the draft process or else risk losing his job (no pressure there). While Sonny has the power to select whoever he desires, he is being influenced by numerous outside factors (very common in every negotiation). Even the Seattle team owner makes the comment ‘to fleece him’ when Sonny later calls to make them an offer, urging his general manager to use the power they now have to get as much as they could from Sonny. Influence plays a big role in negotiations and how you use and respond to it can play a large part in deciding the outcome. Sonny ends up sharing power in a cooperative move with the novice Jacksonville Jaguars general manager. Sonny convinces them to acquire their #6 pick, so they would not look like amateurs (‘donkeys’) to the rest of the league by selecting a potential bust. This enables him to subsequently turn the tables on the Seahawks. With the power shifted, Sonny influences the Seahawks to not only return all his #1 picks, but in addition, add in another player ‘just because he (Sonny) felt like it.’ This last move is a demonstration of leveraging extreme power over the other party. He even uses a lot of the same words Seattle used earlier in the day which highlights another important point in negotiation: words matter! 

Communication is one of the most difficult tasks in modern society! Some readers might disagree and feel as if we communicate better than ever. But do we? Do we actually communicate more effectively today than we did 20 years ago? We have more technology and social media outlets, but that does not equate to effective communication. In a negotiation, two skills stand out: active asking and active listening. Asking the right questions at the right time is a great way to gather information from your opposite. Also, truly listening without letting your mind wander to other places (or make snap judgements) is very important. We all endure countless interruptions (phone, email), all of which can distract us from listening to the other person. We are taught from an early age to speak. We take classes to learn how to speak eloquently. However, there are very few classes on how to properly listen, which is as vital a skill as speaking when in a negotiation. Context must also be considered. Remember back when you were young and played the telephone game. The teacher would whisper something to one student and the message was passed along until the last student would reveal what they had heard. Inevitably, the message was nothing like the original one told to the first student. Why is that? Our worldview, or the lens with which we view everything, is unique. It is different from every other person. The way we receive information and pass it along is influenced by our worldview. It can greatly change the message’s original intent. Research also reveals that 75- 80% of communication is nonverbal. If that’s the case, how are we communicating effectively in today’s technology driven world where we cannot see each other? An Emoji can only do so much.  Sonny communicated constantly throughout the movie using many modes from face to face, cell phone, speaker phone, as well as non-verbal. It’s a challenging task, especially when the clock is ticking, emotions are riding high, and the stakes are high. 

Negotiation is a lot like leadership. You cannot just rely on one style to accomplish everything. (Or “one size does not fit all situations.”) Our diverse population and the varied ways in which people operate demands that we have flexible approaches to negotiations. Flexibility is the key to being successful in negotiations and you need the ability to adjust your style, sometimes on the fly. The AFNC advocates leveraging five distinct strategies: Insist, Evade, Settle, Comply, and Cooperate. All of these strategies were on display in the movie, but I’ll only touch on a few here. Sonny leveraged many different strategies to get what he needed. He adjusted strategies depending on the situation and who he was dealing with. When the owner put the stress on Sonny to make a ‘splash’, he was at the mercy of the Seahawks when the #1 pick was offered. He used the Comply strategy because he lacked the power to make a solid counteroffer and also wanted to keep the relationship with Cleveland’s owner intact (not to mention his job). Remembering the deal Sonny made with Jacksonville, he used the Cooperative strategy, which set up the final re-negotiation with Seattle. He used the Evade strategy with both the Buffalo Bills as well as several of the players when they called. He evaded because he did not want to deal with those situations at that time. After the trade with Jacksonville, Sonny had the leverage (power) he needed and so implemented the Insist strategy over the Seahawks (on the second negotiation) with a greater possibility of success. He knew Seattle (and the people of Seattle) wanted the apparent #1 quarterback and used that to his advantage (Sonny did his homework). When choosing your negotiation strategy, ask what is most important? The item on the table or the relationship (or both)? Negotiation is a challenging adventure ride we take many times every day and sometimes we do not even label the interaction as a negotiation. Christopher Voss in his book Never Split the Difference stated, “The most dangerous negotiation is the one you don’t know you’re in.” Most of us just rely on our past experience to get by and improvise as we go along. This often proves to be faulty and almost always leaves unclaimed value on the table (or gives a disproportionate share of the value to the other side). There are so many more axioms involved when it comes to negotiating which I hope to tackle in future articles. For more information regarding negotiation, please visit the Air Force Negotiation Center website at