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Understanding Afghan Culture

Newsletter 12-18
September 2012

CALL Newsletter 12-18: Understanding Afghan Culture

Toward a Better Way to Engage: Insights from the Field of Negotiation

by MAJ Aram Donigian, Professor Jeff Weiss, and Mr. Petitti

This article was originally published in the April 2012 issue of COIN Common Sense,

"My Soldiers are starting to hate Afghans and I am looking for help.

Why am I not surprised? After all, many ANSF seem to care less about succeeding than we do; most of the people are 'fence sitting' and not DOING anything to fix their country; and it seems that all the elders and GIRoA officials in my districts are corrupt.

What can I do to shape my Soldiers' attitude? Is it a lost cause? I'm out of options, and I'm hoping that others have experience and ideas on how to help Soldiers stay positive toward Afghans over the long haul of this deployment. "

A recent post to the U.S. Army's platoon leader forum

Italicized text marked by *** are from field observations of former West Point Negotiation Project (WPNP) students.

The challenge of influencing Afghans to take action is real, and the resulting frustration, and even resentment, is certainly understandable. Soldiers working tirelessly to help Afghans rebuild their country are faced far too often with a people unwilling to engage, never mind take any action. Worse yet, the more nothing happens, the more the tendency there is to push harder, coerce and even, at times, to try to use threats to convince Afghans to make change. This, in turn, causes even more pushback from the Afghans, taking the form of ignoring recommendations, agreeing to consider them and then doing nothing, or just rejecting them out of hand. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the answer to the platoon leader's post above lies in the reasonableness of the perception that "they don't care" and the strategies employed to try harder to change that. No Soldier is going to change an Afghan's feelings or approach because they simply tell or lecture an Afghan on why they should. A Soldier is only going to change an Afghan's feelings if they develop a new - and different - understanding of why Afghans often choose not to take action, and if the Soldier has a new set of strategies for persuading them to do otherwise.

The solution begins with the most basic tenet of negotiation - people do what THEY perceive to be in their best interest. If they believe a proposal is less satisfying than the benefits derived from their walkaway (doing nothing, stalling, doing what they have always done before, waiting for someone else to take action first, etc. ), they will always say, "No. " They are not evil, nor crazy. They are simply acting in their perceived self-interest. Our job, then, is to first understand how they view our proposal, and then find a way to change their choice. To do this effectively involves skillfully implementing five strategies.

Graphic showing process of choice - balancing options versus alternatives
Figure 5-1

Strategy #1: Understand their choice and why it's in their interest to say "No"

The most effective way to make people take action is to fully understand their choice. If you can put yourself in your counterpart's shoes and understand the question they believe they are being asked, and the perceived consequences of saying 'yes' versus the benefits of saying 'no,' you will be able to better understand why he is making a certain choice, and how you can influence his decision.

*** "The major project for several months was the building of a new school. It was just about finished when it was destroyed one night. We engaged with the villagers to understand who had destroyed the school. At first, I tried offering food and clothing in exchange for information. They gladly took these items but offered no credible leads. I then tried being extra persuasive by explaining how this school would be beneficial for their children. They seemed to understand and even agree, but still would not give me any information. Finally, in frustration, I yelled that any additional help for this village would be conditional on their cooperating with us. At this, they walked away. We never found out who had destroyed the school and could not get the funding again to build a new one. The enemy achieved their goal; we did not. After some reflection, I realized that my offer had not met their true fear: protecting their families from the enemy that operated in their village. Because I did not inquire about or creatively work to meet this concern, nothing else that I tried to do mattered. Their alternative (not angering the enemy and risking harm to their families) to working with me (taking the food and clothes in exchange for information that might result in death) was clearly the better solution from their perspective. "

Leaders are often unaware of the choice the other party has, as well as how to manage that choice. Had this leader spent the time to consider why the villagers were saying 'no' to his proposal, the outcome may have been different. The Currently Perceived Choice (CPC) Tool can enable leaders to systematically think about why their counterpart might be saying no to a proposal.

Graphic showing decision possibilities from currently perceived choices
Click here for enlarged image.
Figure 5-2

Strategy #2: Develop options that meet their interests well

If you understand the reason your counterpart might say 'no' to a proposal and are able to recognize his concerns, you can then develop options that address those concerns and meet both of your interests. In the CPC above, the left column contains the interests and concerns of the villagers that are not met by the proposal. To change their choice, any option would need to meet those interests well. The best approach to developing good options is by engaging with your counterpart, acknowledging his or her concerns and interests, and jointly coming up with solutions that meet his interests and yours. Developing creative solutions and asking 'what would be wrong with this?' allows for a productive conversation that can lead to jointly beneficial agreements.

Strategy #3: Test their alternatives and find ways to weaken them

Of course, you would never agree to an option that was not better than your walkaway - your alternative to an agreement. In the CPC, the right column lists the villagers' alternatives to working with the platoon leader. When the walkaway is better than the perceived option, the choice is easy. Understanding and testing the villagers' walkaway would have provided an opportunity to weaken the alternatives, thereby making the option to work with the Soldiers more attractive. In the example above, would the Soldiers leaving lead to the Taliban continuing to terrorize the village? Would their families likely be more at risk? What other negative consequences might there be to this alternative? What if the Soldiers created a fading opportunity and said they would leave the village if no information was turned in by a hard deadline? If we do not test our counterpart's alternatives, we lose the chance to weaken their perception of them. Only when the left hand column of the CPC looks like a better situation than the right can we know that the option of engaging with us is better than the alternative, and that is what we need to get them to make a choice aligned with our interests.

Strategy #4: Make it easy for them to defend the agreement

Just as you would not agree to an option that your boss and colleagues would disapprove of, your counterpart will not commit to something that he cannot defend to his commander or constituents and, even if he does, it is unlikely that he'll be able to follow through with it.

***"Prior to our arrival in the district, the local government had very little presence. Tribal elders and the sub-governor no longer met on a regular basis. Strong enemy pressure in the area had prevented the weekly shura from occurring. Our initial engagements with the sub-governor and chief of police were aimed at improving governance in the district by getting the Afghan National Security Forces to patrol on their own through the neighboring villages.

Previous efforts to achieve this outcome had proven unsuccessful due to the lack of confidence on the part of the Afghan forces to patrol on their own. They wanted coalition forces' support at all times. It took some effort to understand their concerns and to then brainstorm ways that we might meet what initially appeared to be conflicting interests. One solution we eventually decided to try was that the Afghans would patrol on their own to the village, while my platoon patrolled to the east approximately 2-3 km away. We were far enough away so they would have to deal with immediate issues on their own but close enough that we could quickly support them if needed. We also agreed to a communications plan involving a star cluster to signal us in case they made contact. We were both able to defend the solution to our commanders because not only did it meet both our needs, but it also served to demonstrate to the local population that the Afghan forces had the capability of patrolling alone. "

In the case above the platoon leader engaged his counterparts in a meaningful dialogue, worked to understand their concerns, and asked them for ideas about how those concerns could be met. Just as importantly, he recognized that his counterparts could only agree to an option that they could defend. As you put options on the table, it's important to discuss how they can be defended to you and your counterpart's teams, bosses, and constituents. If you are not able to do so, you may end up with an agreement that you will not be able to implement, and there is really no point to coming to an agreement if it does not lead to the necessary action.

Strategy #5: Take the time to understand their perspective and share yours

Having this type of productive conversation is not necessarily simple. It requires an open mind and curiosity. It is not enough to understand your counterparts' answer - you need to understand their story. Even if you do not agree with their conclusion, learning how they came to it can uncover important interests and concerns and allow you to come up with better options. It also gives you an opportunity to explain your story and how you have reached your conclusions, thereby helping them understand the interests that are important to you. At a time when our ability to coordinate with our Afghan partners is both challenged and increasingly essential, it is critical to explore their perceptions and put yours on the table. The Ladder of Inference is a tool for exploring your counterpart's reasoning path and perspectives and explaining yours.

Graphic showing the Ladder of Inference, a tool for exploring  counterpart's reasoning path and perspectives and explaining own
Click here for enlarged image.
Figure 5-3


Frustration leads to resentment, and resentment to anger, and there is plenty of frustration when faced with what feels like an untenable choice - pushing harder and harder on the Afghans to take action, when this strategy has so often failed in the past, or giving up, declaring it "their problem" to fix, and failing the mission. There is, however, a third choice. This choice is rooted in making it our problem to understand theirs (their perspective, diagnoses, goals, etc. ), and using those insights to persuade. The leader needs to stop trying to figure out the answer to sell to the Afghans, and instead work to fully understand why they are rejecting our recommendations, proposals or assistance. Once our leaders do, they can use what they have uncovered (Afghan interests, fears, and objectives) to build new proposals that better meet those interests, while providing ways to help the Afghans assess and defend saying 'yes' to one or more these new options, and at the same time demonstrating to the Afghans that their walkaway (doing nothing, keeping the status quo, etc. ) is far less satisfying than these potential agreements. Building and testing understanding with the Afghans while taking each of these steps is not only critical for success, but also has the very real potential of leading to Afghans taking on a new role in "the conversation" - from one of acceptor or rejecter of requests for change, to one of working jointly with leaders to invent, critique, select, defend and implement new ideas.

Strategies for a Better Way to Engage

Key Pieces of Advice

Understand their choice and why it's in their interest to say, "No"

Try to look at the proposal from your counterpart's point of view

Use the Currently Perceived Choice (CPC) Tool to understand the question they are hearing and why they might be saying "no"

Test your filled-out CPC with an Afghan friend to get an additional perspective

Develop options that meet their interests well

Use the left hand side of the filled-out CPC to identify the interests and concerns that the current proposal does not meet

Brainstorm options and ask for criticism-"What would be wrong with this?"

Ask your counterpart to jointly brainstorm options-"What other solutions might meet your concerns and my objectives?"

Test their alternatives and find ways to weaken them

Use the right hand side of the filled-out CPC to identify the walkaway alternatives that your counterpart believes are better than the proposal

Suggest ways that the alternatives may not actually be so attractive-"It seems to me that the implications of that are X, Y, and Z. Am I missing something?"

Make it easy for them to defend the agreement

Jointly identify the people that need to agree with the solution in order for action to be taken

Consider people who may be against the agreement, and determine what their concerns might be and how you could address them

Take the time to understand their perspective and share yours

Explore their story and understand their perceptions and how that is leading to their conclusion

Stay curious-even if you don't agree with them, you can always benefit from understanding their story and hearing their interests and concerns

Figure 5-4

End Notes

For more information on negotiation training, tools, and organizational support, please contact the West Point Negotiation Project at, Major Donigian at, Professor Weiss at, or Mr. Petitti at You may also visit the WPNP website: or read "Extreme Negotiations" by the authors in Harvard Business Review, November 2010.

The authors would like to give a special thanks to West Point Cadet DJ Taylor who highlighted the platoon leader's question and asked the critical questions of "What would be your insight and response to this problem; how would you move your platoon past this?"

Table of Contents | Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12

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