I enjoy chopping tree rounds into firewood. There is something satisfying about pounding away with a maul or axe, hearing the wood screech and succumb, then enjoying a roaring all-wood fire in the hearth later that winter. I used to live in suburban Virginia surrounded by trees; inevitably one would fall somewhere on the property (hopefully not too close to the structures!) and need to be chopped before the fuel is wasted from quickly rotting into the damp soil and being eaten by bugs.
Chopping tree rounds reminds me of negotiating agreements. A fallen log is heavy and awkward with few uses; split and chopped into rounds or lumber, it has a myriad of uses-a win/win. A new round standing before you is a challenge. The center heartwood is defiant and hard as rock. Rings bind together living sapwood, dense and sticky. Knots and twists are hidden inside. You can hardly lift the whole thing without straining your back or scratching your arms. Yet it can and must be broken.
Think of the round as a policy issue as perceived by your negotiating partner: their position is planned, thought through, they consider their narrative logical and dense. They do not intend to move.
The first step is to flip the round from its flat side to the bark. You then can roll it to a flat and open spot fairly easy. You are ready to make full swings with your axe unhindered by branches from other trees. Sometimes it helps to use a stump as an unyielding base so the target takes the full impact of your maul. In negotiating, this equates to researching the issue. You need to study it from different angles. You need to remove extraneous external impediments, and separate the determinate issue from the brush. You need to study history, culture, precedent, previously-agreed language, know the red lines, or outcomes that are non-starters for your partner’s authorities.
The first strike with the axe will probably bounce off the hard and heavy round. It may even hurt your elbows because the axe handle will absorb the impact and those vibrations will burst up through your arms. It is easy to get discouraged because it seems that round will never succumb, even after several strikes. Maybe the round even grabs your axe head so you can’t pull it out, and you have to extract by awkwardly hitting it with the heel of the maul head. Likewise, your first formal conversation in negotiations, it may seem there is no solution because your partner’s position is unyielding.
You learn from these first few strikes, however. You learn just how solid the dark heartwood really is. You may start to observe tiny fault lines. Most of all, you may determine a heavy dull splitting maul will be more effective than a sharp but light axe. If the wood is still too green, you may also determine the round needs to dry in the open air a bit longer. Likewise in negotiating, you will find your partner does not seem to understand, and is not affected by, certain arguments. Yet other talking points turn into conversations. You may decide to try different approaches as a result of what you initially find. The ultimate solution is not now apparent.
At the end of the day, however, you know that all rounds can be broken. There are imperfections there. It is all a matter of persisting to pound on those tiny faults that exist in every log and every social issue. The dull thuds that mark ineffectiveness are suddenly interrupted by a longer squishing sound that seems to come from deep inside the round. A breakthrough. Look closely now: one of those little faults is a bit bigger. Pound on it, again and again. One stroke the maul only dents the surface, and the next the round accepts the maul all the way to the center!
From there, the round falls apart. Using your axe, you can proceed to slice off pieces just like a pie, perhaps with even one stroke. Likewise, your partner’s position can be systematically broken into its component parts into pieces you both can use–a win/win.
You will probably discover larger knots deep in the round that grab your axe head and refuse to yield. It is tempting to believe you can only win by destroying that knot. But you will probably chop the entire round into splinters before breaking the center of that knot. Don’t be proud because a finite policy outcome, not total domination, is the objective. The alternative is to split the wood around the knot. That point of impregnable strength can be left undisturbed in the center of a firewood slice. You will enjoy listening to it snap and protest as it is slowly consumed by the flame. In the morning the cold ashes will all look the same.
The lessons of chopping firewood for negotiating can be summed up as follows: