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Book Review: Negotiating the Nonnegotiable

Life is about conflict and negotiation. We have a sense of who we are and what holds meaning for us. What is meaningful is not the same for everyone, and that causes disagreements from mild annoyance to war. There are times when someone just seems so wrong that emotions get the best of us. We shout at each other and discount each other and we don’t listen.

I know it happens to me, especially in arguments about science. But as a therapist, I also see it during therapy sessions, especially family therapy, where family members get into seemingly intractable power struggles. I have seen it and been a part of it in work situations, when instead of functioning as a healthy “we,” folks got caught up in having to be right and defend turf no matter what the cost.

As I read David Shapiro’s Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts, I thought about our political system and campaigns and how our system has conflict built in. Courts are set up as adversarial, and our three part government system is set up with checks and balances that are adversarial. That guarantees conflict. Someone wins, and someone has to lose, and people fight to win. Being seen as a loser in this culture is not a positive thing.

At this point I have recommended Shapiro’s book more than any book I have read in quite some time. I have suggested it to friends, colleagues, and clients. He begins with a story from war-torn Yugoslavia twenty five years ago, where a young woman named Veronica was in one of his workshops for teenage refugees. During Yugoslavia’s breakup and bloodshed, Veronica had been held and forced to watch as her captors slit her boyfriend’s throat. As Shapiro and his colleagues left Yugoslavia, she asked him to not be like all the others who came to help and then had forgotten them after they left. He promised he would remember, and he has kept that promise. He has written a book that presents a model of negotiation that is backed by research and experience. And he also acknowledges that even the best negotiations can fail.

Shapiro is the founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, and he has been involved in negotiations ranging from hostage situations with police to work in the Middle East with Palestine and Israel. He is a psychologist and has provided family therapy. He is also married and a father of three sons. He draws from all of these roles for examples of emotionally charged situations that can become almost impossible to resolve.

What makes things so hard to work out? We become lost in our emotions, and as he says, “you can’t solve emotions.” I have taught behavioral intervention programs and what I have seen, and Shapiro emphasizes as well, is that too often we jump to trying to solve a disagreement rationally without acknowledging emotions first. That just doesn’t work. Shapiro says we have to get beneath our emotions to the root of identity: who are you and who am I? What are the values of our respective tribes and what do they mean to us? Negotiation takes place in that space between us.

The first step is to listen to each other. There are many barriers to getting to a collaborative phase. He talks about the five lures that draw us into tribalism and what takes listening off the table. Tribes are adversarial, self-righteous, and closed. He quotes philosopher Martin Buber as the relationship between us goes from an “I-thou” to an “I-it.” We get lost in emotion (vertigo), we do the same thing over and over (repetition compulsion), have certain things we just won’t discuss (taboos), feel that what we cherish is attacked (assault on the sacred), and we position ourselves to advance our agenda (identity politics).

Shapiro has broken down all the pitfalls we face in negotiation and given us tools to try to get beyond what can seem to be an impossible task. He uses charts, acronyms, and steps to help break the process down into manageable and focused parts. For example, to try to break the repetition compulsion, there is the TCI method — trigger, cycle of discord, and impact. The method of evaluating your connection with another is REACH — recognition of existence, empathic understanding, attachment, care, and hallowed kinship. It feels like he has covered every possible variable for conflict with some way to address them.

I would love to see one of his workshops where people divide into tribes, develop their own values, and then a space alien enters the room and gives them a specified amount of time to unite into one tribe. If they do not, the world ends. In almost every case, Shapiro says, the world ends. We truly become attached to our identities very quickly and deeply.

A part of the book that has a lot of meaning for me is on reconciliation. We have all felt wronged in our lives, and we have hurt others. Forgiveness often comes up with clients in therapy. Shapiro does a really nice job of going over the process of reconciliation and forgiveness and just what that means. In conflict resolution, he emphasizes the “we,” where we strive for harmony, not victory. We are cooperative, compassionate and open. And that takes a lot of trust.

I highly recommend this book. I wish we could all read it and begin to use what he teaches to work toward solutions. This is a very solution-oriented book. I also recommend reading the Notes section at the end of the book. There is a lot of useful information in there as well. Shapiro also has an extensive select bibliography which you can use to further your knowledge of negotiating the nonnegotiable. You might also want to take a look at a talk Shapiro gave about Negotiating the Nonnegotiable on BookTV. He also spoke at Google. He writes with great passion and clarity, and it turns out he is just as passionate and engaging in person.

Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts

Viking, April 2016

Hardcover, 336 Pages


Book Review: Negotiating the Nonnegotiable

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Stan Rockwell, PsyD

Stan Rockwell, PsyD, LPC has been working in the mental health field for over 40 years. He has worked as a therapist at a state hospital, a community mental health center and has been in private practice since 2009. He has also worked in disaster mental health, crisis intervention, as a client rights investigator and advocate, training and research, and graduate student supervision. He is a past chair of professional development for the Virginia Counselors Association. He has been a volunteer field tester for the World Health Organization in the development of the ICD 11 since 2013 and has been reviewing books for since 2012. He also teaches a class at the College of William and Mary that combines taijiquan and qigong with science and Chinese philosophy. He uses eastern and western methods in his counseling psychology practice. You can find him online at and

APA Reference
Rockwell, S. (2016). Book Review: Negotiating the Nonnegotiable. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 11 Aug 2016
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 11 Aug 2016
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