Learning to give priority to what is best for all

Terry Mollner brokered the sale of Ben & Jerry’s, the socially conscious Vermont ice cream makers, to Unilever, the third largest consumer products company in the world. His goal was to protect the deep investment in social activism and commitment to sustainability that Ben & Jerry’s is known for. To do so he had to help all of the players to transcend their us vs. them thinking (what he calls blue vs red). This allowed everyone to change their fundamental pattern of thinking into what he calls a new “oneness pattern.” He tells this story about the experience. – MA

In 2000 I was the leader of a team trying to buy Ben & Jerry’s. A time came — at 2 AM — when negotiations broke down. The twenty or so representatives of Unilever, their investment bankers from Goldman Sachs, and their lawyers from Sadden Arps, had gotten up from the boardroom table, gathered their winter coats and briefcases, and were leaving through the boardroom door. I had used all of my facilitation skills to try to keep negotiations proceeding and they had not worked. I knew I could not let them leave the room: my leverage to get them back to the negotiating table would be greatly reduced.

In desperation, I pulled something out of my back pocket. It was all I could think of that might work.

When half of them were already outside the boardroom door, I asked all to come back into the room with a voice that suggested I had something new to put on the table. They froze where they were. They looked at each other to determine what to do. They non-verbally reached agreement to return to the table. They put their coats and briefcases down somewhere and sat back down. Arms were crossed and the attitude was clear:  “You better have something damn good to say!”

When all were fully settled back in their chairs at the large wooden boardroom table, I spoke. “I would like to ask everyone to be silent for a few moments. While you are silent, think about the answer to these two questions: What is the priority here? What is best for the good of all?”

I then went into total silence myself and very self-consciously looked at the table so I would not meet anyone’s eyes.

We were probably only silent for two or three minutes, but to them it probably felt like ten minutes. I am quite sure they had probably never experienced anything like this in negotiations on the 57th floor of a building on Wall Street.

“What is the priority here? What is best for the good of all?”

I eventually looked up and the lead negotiator for Goldman Sachs caught my eye and motioned with them a request to speak. I motioned back that that would be fine.

He presented their position in a way that fully accommodated our position. Jim Steiker, my lead negotiator, responded in a way that fully accommodated their position. We were back into negotiations as if no polarization had ever happened.

Twice over the next couple of months we ended up in an almost deal breaking polarization, and both times I did the same thing using the same words. We would be back into negotiations within minutes as if the polarization had never occurred.

“By switching the pattern of thinking from polarization to prioritization, I had switched the pattern of thinking from separate parts to oneness.”

It was only weeks afterward that I was able to figure out why this worked. By switching the pattern of thinking from polarization to prioritization I had switched the pattern of thinking from separate parts to oneness.

The natural result was that they had begun putting the parts together to make a whole, the opposite of blue vs. red.

It was this experience that had me discover the importance of not only changing our belief and self-definition, but also changing our self-conscious primary pattern of our thinking — the wordrack on which we hang our thoughts — to the oneness pattern of thinking.

It is giving priority to priorities.

This article is reprinted with permission from Terry’s book Common Good Capitalism is Inevitable.

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