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  • Writer's pictureAbby Rosmarin

The Burghers of Calais: Interest Based Negotiations

Rodin's The Burghers of Calais.

The dramatic and heart wrenching embodiment of suffering and resignation.

Before this moment captured by Rodin of six leading citizens of Calais leaving the gates of their beloved and besieged city, nooses around their neck and starved, was the heroic decision to exchange their lives for those of their families and fellow citizens. As the story goes, the richest Burgher came to the decision, and following his lead, five others followed suit. Scholars believe that this method of surrender met the interest of the invading King who had been dishonored by the lengthy resistance.


Rodin's sculpture presents the Burghers as they leave the city gates and are unaware that their lives will be spared. Each is grappling with his very existence.

In negotiating the terms of the city’s surrender to an enemy, the Burghers embodied the notion that people often choose to strike a deal that promotes one's interests – even if at great cost. While there were other options, albeit not very joyous, e.g., starve to death or die fighting, these men saw the value of giving up something to gain something that mattered to them.

I imagine they also thought about whether their surrender was worse than what was the best walk-away alternative, often referred to as BATNA – best alternative to a negotiated agreement. While their own lives were at stake and they had no way to ensure that the city would be spared after their surrender, perhaps the words of the Burgher Sir Eustache de Saint Pierre indicates why he believed that his sacrifice was preferable to not.

“Gentlemen, it would be a great shame to allow so many people to starve to death, if there were any way of preventing it. And it would be highly pleasing to Our Lord if anyone could save them from such a fate. I have such faith and trust in gaining pardon and grace from Our Lord if I die in the attempt, that I will put myself forward as the first.”

People who are negotiating are often faced with a similar inquiry: what matters to me most, what can I do and/or what can I give up, to ensure that I can retain, protect, or receive this thing that matters.

Often negotiations falter when this articulation of what matters — interests — is overlooked. To approach negotiations in an interest-based way, meaning, to understand what you and the other wants before considering how it can be achieved, and to use that information when creating options, enhances the chance to find a sustainable resolution and more positive expectations for future relationships.

It is difficult to consider in the midst of negotiations what our counterpart feels, believes, or values. Sometimes people think that the best way to advance his/her own interests is to shut down the other side. This tactic can escalate disputes. Not just because it fuels an emotional reaction, but also because it fuels an escalation of the behavior. In other words, competitive behavior breeds more competitive behavior.*

And, why does that matter? Isn’t it better to just be tough in negotiations and not move? Isn't is better to show a force of power? Well ... you might end up with a siege.

*Deutsch. M ( 1973) The Resolution of Conflict, New Haven, CT: Yale Press. Also coined by Deutsch as the Crude Law of Social Relations, it states “The characteristic processes and effect elicited by a given type of social relationship also tend to elicit that type of social relationship.”

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