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09 July 2020

Negotiating in Style – Marx Brothers Style

You may recall that wonderfully entertaining scene in the Marx Brothers movie, “A Night at the Opera” where Groucho and Chico are deep in contract negotiations. Here is a reminder.

Whilst Groucho and Chico certainly did not come across as ‘sane’ in that particular negotiation, it highlights that everyone has their own negotiating style. This article explores a few different negotiating styles. 

Groucho Marx Style – Being one step ahead 

Some of Groucho’s defining characteristics were his quick wit, his sharpness and his ability to be one step ahead of whoever he was talking to. 

These are important characteristics for any negotiation. To be one step ahead you need to work very hard initially to anticipate your opponent’s every move and what your opponent is thinking before he/she has even said it. You need to be ready with your response hopefully putting your opponents on the back foot. 

Harpo Marx Style - Silence 

In all the Marx Brothers movies, Harpo played a mute but his silence didn’t prevent him from making a big impact, something the silent negotiator may be able to do. 

Often your opponent may make a well thought out point eagerly awaiting your response but it never comes. Instead, the silent negotiator creates an awkward silence hoping to make the opponent feel uncomfortable. To avoid the awkward silence the opponent may continue talking and talking. This is where the danger lies. The more the opponent speaks, the more likely the argument can be diluted or undermined. All that is needed from the silent negotiator is to unpick the mess. 

If both parties remain silent then you need to consider an alternative style. 

Chico Marx Style - Charm 

Chico Marx was always the friendly amiable Marx Brother. 

Being a good natured negotiator can often be a vital tool in agreeing terms in any transaction. Often there are negotiators who lack personality or can be aggressive. Working together with your opponent can often lead to the best outcome. 

Whilst being alert to the possibility of your opponent’s charm being false, if both parties enter into the negotiation with a positive attitude and are friendly in their style it is more likely that you will achieve an acceptable result even if points have to be given away. 

However, whilst the friendly approach may conclude the transaction quickly, it does not necessarily result in you achieving the best results for your client. 

Zeppo Marx Style – Keeping calm 

Zeppo Marx was the calm, collected and patient Marx Brother. 

If you can remain calm in any negotiation then this can yield dividends. It is possible that your opponent is aggressive or arrogant and enters the negotiation thinking that the loudest voice will win the negotiation. If you are able to show that you are not intimidated by your opponent’s robust technique then this can often work in your favour. Remaining calm when your opponent is aggressive can be disarming. 

Shouting contests often lead nowhere and create bad feeling. The negotiator who remains calm and focused is more likely to win the argument. 

Gummo Marx Style – Keeping away 

Not many people know that there was a fifth Marx Brother. Gummo was never in any of the Marx Brothers movies. 

Some negotiators state at the outset that it’s a take it or leave it deal. Mostly that is untrue and there invariably there is some flexibility. To refuse to engage is an aggressive approach but can sometimes yield results. This approach should only be used if the negotiator is prepared to walk away from a deal. It sets out a clear position and emphasises that you mean business. However, if you use it against the wrong opponent then the transaction can end up in tatters. So this can be a risky approach.

These are just a handful of styles which I have experienced as a transactional lawyer. There is no correct style and what may work some of the time does not work all the time. Flexibility is required and the negotiator should be ready to move from one style to another as circumstances dictate. The most important message to take from this is to find your own style. Develop it over time and work out what is best to achieve your client’s goal. If both parties can achieve their desired outcomes then even better and that is the skill of a truly excellent negotiator. Just remember to do your research, work hard and stay sane!


For more information, please do not hesitate to contact Alexander Gold.

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