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The Accountant: An Analysis of Negotiation

"Can one man, one hard drinking, chain smoking, backwoods accountant, stop a national conspiracy, change the course of history, and save a way of life? It's do-able... but it ain't gonna be purdy." The tagline for the 38 minute 2001 Oscar winner for Best Live Action Short Film, The Accountant, helps illustrate two men sharing a common goal, saving the farm to preserve a way of life.

The Accountant does an excellent job illustrating David's internal negotiation for how to save a way of life for his kids, which his family has managed for five generations. The accountant helps provide David options to achieve that goal because it his goal to preserve family farms and prevent corporate takeovers that change southerners way of life. One of these options must be taken, as all the other alternatives are felt to be exhausted.

The story begins with brothers David and Tommy heading over to their "daddy's" place to meet an accountant, who supposedly can help David out of his financial trouble with the farm. It is apparent that David is unprepared, which is a critical in all negotiations. For the meeting, he has gathered all of his financial documents, but has done no preparation to learn who about the accountant himself, which plays a critical factor later. Tommy explains that this accountant is the one who helped their neighbor, Johnny Vance, save his farm from financial trouble by reaping the insurance benefit of losing his arm in a hay bailing "accident". Tommy continues by saying, "From what I understand, there's only one option."

When the accountant arrives, he asks for all of David's papers: deeds, titles, loans, insurance, and receipts. Tommy and David get into an argument over the financial trouble of the farm, when the accountant asks David if his wife has a beauty mark on her left breast that resembles a faded third nipple in the dim light. David replies that she does and asks how he knows that, in a concerned tone. The accountant explains that it's "medical records... it's all in the numbers" and then asks "have I got your attention now, David?" David replies "Yeah, you sure do." This inappropriate remark immediately establishes the accountant's credibility with the analysis of the financial documents and shows that he not only shows up prepared, but continues preparing and adapting. Also, drawing attention to this preparation proves to be an excellent tactic to show the other side you're someone worth being heard. The accountant uses this process to gather information on David in order to use it in the coming options for saving the farm.

The first option presented results from learning of David's inventory. The accountant suggests burning the old hog barn to get $25,000 insurance money. He said that the fire would then run up the grass to the tractor, which would have a full tank of diesel to explode, torching the hogs. The hen house would then go up in flames. David exclaims, "My great, great, great granddaddy built this farm, my own daddy would roll over in his grave." The accountant replies, "Your own daddy would roll over in his grave if you lost the farm for your boys." He then states, "I'm just giving you options, the final decision will be yours." So, David continues to listen. Most of the hogs and chickens would be sold, and the accountant would provide bones and burnt chicken feathers at no extra fee. The accountant explains that insurance companies are no fools, so it would also be important that his dog Lucky, faithful companion for seven years, would also have to go. At this point, David asks the accountant, "Why do you come here?" He replies," I come here to save this farm for those boys of yours, no more no less, mostly. I'd think that be your concern as well." They take a short break, and then the accountant explains that David would still be short about $125,000. So, he tells David that he knows that a guy that could cut off an arm and two legs, stop the bleeding quickly, to help get the rest of the insurance money. David ponders it for a few moments, and then interjects, "I can't farm without my legs!"

This first option is clearly not sustainable, but still has interesting negotiating implications. This process starts out creatively as they methodically attempt to problem solve, but ultimately ends up shortsighted. According to Herb Cohen, negotiating is a continuum that often requires creative problem solving (Negotiate This!, 173). It is established during this discussion that they share a common goal, which is a main first step to collaborative negotiations. Normally, it would be best to establish this before the discussions begin, but it is done here in the midst of the negotiation, which seems to be an effective tactic to convince David that these horrific solutions are in his best interest. Obviously ethics are ignored by both men because they are only concerned with the outcome, but the dialogue is noteworthy here. In many negotiations, it is not just the tangible options that are important, but how they are communicated and "sold." The accountant convinces David that his father would prefer the farm be partially destroyed than lost altogether. This option moves along successfully throughout the stages in which the accountant is well prepared. He seems to understand his counterpart's inventory and perspective on his father well. The accountant fails to recognize that losing two legs and an arm does not allow this option to be sustainable. If he had thought this through ahead of time, he may have been able to come up with an alternative plan to get the remaining $125,000, making this option viable. Instead, he immediately starts explaining option two.

The accountant considers the second option to be the last and most viable. While crunching the numbers, the accountant discovers that David's wife, Kathy, is probably adulterous. He makes this known to David, and brings up their life insurance policy. The accountant figures three-to-five odds David's wife will leave him with the kids, even if he keeps all his limbs. David contemplates this option out loud, while drinking heavily.

The accountant established credibility early on with David, making him believe that he can interpret numbers like no other. So, when he states that the odds of his wife leaving him with the kids are 3-5, David listens. If one is trying to persuade another, reputation is critical. Since David knew hardly anything about the accountant coming into the meeting, it was important that the accountant gain that respect quickly during the meeting, which he did.




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