If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs

I love the scene in Aliens where Ripley says "I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit." While others are freaking out, she sits there calmly smoking a cigarette and then makes that announcement.

The difference between Ripley and the marines is not some kind of innate character trait of steely nerves. It's superior knowledge of the problem space rooted in experience.

She has tangled with this species before. She has a better idea than the marines of what this species can and will do and just how hard it is to defeat.

She does not hesitate to take full personal responsibility for her proposal and emphatically says "They can bill me." when the corporate guy objects to her proposal because "This installation has a substantial dollar value." Though she has no authority to make any decisions, she is willing to completely own her suggested action and any consequences.

This isn't because she's a badass. It's because it is very clear in her mind what the stakes are and what it will take to solve this.

She not only has a plan of attack and is willing to fully accept all consequences as the lesser evil compared to letting this species live, she deals with the politics of the situation effectively. When the corporate guy says he cannot authorize this action, she points out that this is not his decision to make as it is a military operation and Corporal Hicks is currently in charge.

Corporal Hicks chooses to go with her plan.

The idea that you need to remain calm during a crisis lest you make it worse is something that gets repeated a lot. But it seems to mostly be framed as being about managing your emotions, as if sheer self discipline and ability to deny your feelings is the critical detail that determines your fate in a crisis or in a stressful situation that could become a crisis.

This runs counter to my experience. Because of a medical condition, I am prone to anxiety, so I am often a huge ball of nerves while making better decisions than others about how to handle a potential "powder keg."

Like Ripley, my advantage has to do with superior knowledge informing my choices. My ability to get superior results is about intelligence in the sense of "military intelligence," not nerves of steel.

Understanding people and what motivates them is very helpful when trying to broker a deal in the face of conflict or crisis. That's something I've worked on a lot in life via various pathways and it pays dividends when trying to de-escalate a conflict and broker a deal.

I have had a college class on Negotiation and Conflict Management. I was in charge of one of the negotiating teams in our mock negotiation practice and my team cleaned up.

I already knew a lot about successfully navigating conflict and brokering deals before that class. Taking that class helped put a fine point on a few things for me.

One of the useful mental models we studied in that class is Prisoner's Dilemma. This is a theoretical model that posits offering a deal to two prisoners who cannot communicate with each other and whose choices impact each other.

In the years since taking that class, I have concluded that the message people most need to improve their outcomes is not "Stay calm in stressful situations." It's "Most things in life are not actually anything like Prisoner's Dilemma."

A lot of people seem to go through life behaving as if all stressful situations are some variation of Prisoner's Dilemma where they must make a decision immediately with incomplete information under circumstances where they can't talk to other parties whose own choices will be critical to the outcome. In most cases, none of these conditions is actually true.

Acting as if they are true tends to raise your stress levels and worsen outcomes. When people run into a stressful situation and just assume they will get burned and there is no effective path forward, reacting to that internal monologue tends to actively foster the negative outcomes they fear.

If you know a negotiation is coming up, you can do your research, determine your BATNA and potentially figure out roughly what the ZOPA will likely be ahead of time. You can talk to people in a way that fosters fact finding and determines how they feel about things. You can usually tell people "I don't know the answer to that. Let me get back to you."

A lot of people know you can do your research and you can buy youself some time to make a better decision. The piece that tends to get short shrift is the part where you can talk to people.

When there are bad assumptions on both sides, this often goes very bad places largely because no one bothers to really communicate and check if their assumptions are at all accurate. If they do try to communicate, it's often for the wrong reasons and about the wrong things, like letting people know "I plan to defeat you!" because their priorities are screwed up and they think "winning" means making the other guy lose rather than getting what I want out of this.

Historically, we had the military practice of "Don't kill the messenger." Messages were delivered by a person on foot and if you killed the messenger because you were upset about the message, you were cutting off lines of communication with the enemy.

This meant you now had no means to broker a cease fire or make peace. You were condemning yourself to fighting it out to the bitter end.

The way to resolve conflict is to figure out the lay of the land, figure out the ugly outcomes that other people are assuming is some kind of unavoidable fate a la ancient Greek Tragedies and find some way to explain that there are other alternatives that can satisfy both them and you. A lot of the critical pieces of that puzzle happen in the privacy of your mind and are, thus, almost entirely under your control.

Of course, sometimes there is no nice win/win answer and you have to make a hard decision. But in many cases, a better answer that would have been a win/win solution is simply never pursued because both parties started from the assumption that "We are enemies" and never bothered to look for a solution that might satisfy all parties.


The title comes from a poem by Rudyard Kipling called If. It is the opening line.

This post inspired by my own recent comment on HN.

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