Game of Deals: Negotiation Takeaways from Early Season Seven of Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones, perhaps the most successful television series running today, provides fertile ground for some fascinating philosophical and psychological discussions both online and in print. But regardless of the show’s fantasy medieval setting, Game of Thrones offers a few good lessons in real life deal negotiations. Let’s take a look at some classic textbook negotiation principles through examples from the recent episodes of Season Seven.

I. “Bend the Knee” — Understanding the Goals of the Opposing Party

In order to convince a counterparty to do something, one must be well positioned to offer something in return, something meaningful that the counterparty wants. Therefore, one basic step in fruitful deal negotiations is to understand the objectives and motivations of the other party. Unfortunately two of Game of Thrones main characters, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, have failed to follow this fundamental principle. Their negotiations almost killed the deal.

Late into Episode Two Jon accepted the invitation to visit Dragonstone and appear before the newly arrived Queen Daenerys. While her summons intended to bring Jon, the recently proclaimed King in the North, into the fold to acknowledge her as the rightful heir to the throne of the Seven Kingdoms, Jon had his own agenda in mind. Daenerys wanted Jon, and ultimately all Northern houses loyal to Winterfell, to bend the knee and join her struggle against Cersei Lannister who usurped the Iron Throne after the tragic suicide of her son, King Tommen Baratheon. But Jon gives little thought to the power struggles in the South; he has no interest in the Iron Throne or who sits on it. He has agreed to come to Dragonstone in order to convince Daenerys to join forces with him against the terrifying Northern enemies beyond the Wall — the Night King, the White Walkers and their army of the dead — who threaten the very existence of Westeros.

Both Daenerys and Jon believe that each of their respective predicaments has priority over the other party’s objectives and fail (at least initially) to see the other’s motivations. Jon refuses to bend the knee and swear allegiance to Daenerys for three main reasons. First, Daenerys’ father, King Aerys II Targaryen (also known as “the Mad King”), had brutally executed Jon’s grandfather (Rickard Stark) and uncle (Brandon Stark). Second, he feels that he has no mandate to bind his Northern bannermen to a cause (or a ruler) other than the one they have elected him for. Finally, he perceives the risks presented by the White Walkers as being far more acute than any current threat presented by from Cersei Lannister. After all, he came to ask for Daenerys’ help to defeat the frozen walking dead creatures that jeopardize life as we know it in the whole of Westeros, and not to support her “low-priority” struggle for a place on an iron chair down in Kings Landing.

Daenerys, on the other hand, has waited her whole life for the moment when she takes what’s rightfully hers (according to her at least). After years of exile in the foreign lands of Essos beyond the Narrow Sea, she is impatient to rule the Seven Kingdoms as her father before her and his father before him. As the last living heir to a once mighty dynasty of Targaryens (or is she?) that occupied the Iron Throne since Aegon “the Conqueror,” she is longing to return to what she believes to be her birthright. She summoned Jon Snow to join her in her conquest in exchange for allowing him to remain Warden of the North — a similar arrangement to the one that her predecessor Aegon reached with Jon’s predecessor Torrhen Stark (“the King Who Knelt”). Under no circumstances is she willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of Jon’s kinghood in the North or believe his stories about the mythical White Walkers whom no one in her surroundings has seen.

Despite the efforts of their trusted advisors, Tyrion “the Imp” Lannister and Ser Davos “the Onion Knight” Seaworth, who tried to bridge the gaps between the parties, Daenerys and Jon failed to achieve any progress in their first round of negotiations. Each of them could have taken some simple steps to investigate the other’s motivations and understand the reasons for the other’s position. Daenerys could have explored more about the factual existence of the White Walkers and the danger they might pose. She could have listened to Tyrion who assured her that Jon is neither a mad man nor a liar. She could have relied on Ser Davos’ assurance of Jon’s leadership experience and revolutionary collaboration with the Wildlings. Jon, in turn, could have taken similar actions and propose a compromise to accommodate both sides. For instance, he could have agreed to bend the knee if he and Daenerys would work together to prioritize their military targets and act jointly to eliminate them based on sufficiently reliable intelligence. Instead, their blind conviction in their respective goals, and the lack of understanding and sensitivity to the opposing side’s objectives, only resulted in Jon’s involuntary confinement in Dragonstone. Enemies — one, Daenerys and Jon — nil.

II. “I’m the Rightful Heir” — Effective Communication of One’s Own Goals

Among the most important steps for effective negotiations (if not the most important) is to clearly and effectively communicate one’s targets. One cannot expect the opposing party to guess his or her objectives. But even if one’s position is clear enough, a failure to properly justify this position and any requests made to the opposing party might lead to a quick rejection of one’s offer. Neither Daenerys nor Jon has adequately presented their respective goals in a way that would allow the other to understand the reasoning behind them, let alone agree to cooperate. While Daenerys fails to justify her demand for loyalty and help in taking the Iron Throne, Jon simply forgets to raise his main request: to mine Dragonglass. Another example of how these charismatic battle-seasoned leaders find it hard to get what they want through peaceful negotiations.

The Mother of Dragons has played the “fairness card” of the “rightful queen” from the moment Jon set foot in the gloomy hall of Dragonstone. Like a true millennial (I’m sure it’s a thing in Westeros too!) she figuratively stomps her feet and cries that she’s a dragon, that she’s special and that she deserves to be Queen. It took Missandei of Naath, Daenerys’ trusted interpreter and PR manager, a good half-a-minute to spell out all her dramatic titles: “Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, rightful heir to the Iron Throne, rightful Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms, the Mother of Dragons, the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, the Breaker of Chains.” Daenerys continued in the same vein about how she endured her exile because she believed in herself. “I was born to rule the Seven Kingdoms,” she said, “and I will.” This was truly dramatic but hardly convincing. It didn’t get her closer to her goal. She wanted Jon to bend the knee, swear loyalty to her as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, and rally the North behind her claim to the Iron Throne. Really not too much to ask, especially when Jon has no dog in the race as far as that damned metal chair in Kings Landing is concerned. Nevertheless, Daenerys couldn’t present any really compelling arguments in support of her demand and failed to persuade Jon to accommodate her request.

Her first argument was her birthright — not the most compelling argument in a land where kings are so frequently overthrown! It was Jon’s father, Eddard “Ned” Stark (we know at this point that he wasn’t Jon’s real father), who along with Robert Baratheon led the rebellion against Daenerys’ father, the Mad King. It’s hard to imagine that Jon would be easily persuaded to honor a Targaryen claim to the throne just because Daenerys’ dad was the last lawful king (before he got himself dethroned for his madness and cruelty). If a legacy claim were acceptable here, the Starks could equally assert it because Torrhen Stark was the King in the North prior to Aegon Targaryen’s arrival in Westeros. A title Torrhen had to renounce in order to avoid destruction by Aegon and his dragons.

Daenerys then tried to rely on precedent. Her offer to Jon entails a similar arrangement that existed between Aegon and Torrhen Stark: Torrhen gave up his kinghood and swore fealty to Aegon as the King of the Seven Kingdoms “in perpetuity” (as Daenerys emphasizes) while retaining a position as Warden of the North. They were good times then so why don’t we try the same deal (actually, she mentioned centuries of peace and prosperity, but you get the picture)? Precedents established in prior dealings between the same negotiating parties are often used by one of the parties to justify a certain favorable position in a new deal. However, if circumstances have significantly changed between then and now, the opposing party is less likely to accept old precedents as sufficient justification. Have the circumstances changed that much between Aegon and Daenerys? Well, Daenerys may have come to Westeros with three dragons, but she is not Aegon “the Conqueror.” At least at the moment. And of course, there is that unfortunate execution-of-Jon’s-relatives-by-Daenerys’-father-for-no-good-reason thing which makes it even harder for him to support House Targaryen for no other reason than their family name. In Jon’s eyes, in carrying out this execution, House Targaryen forfeited the benefit of Torrhen Stark’s pledge and effectively released the Starks from any then existing duties of loyalty.

Finally, Daenerys argued that she has three fully grown dragons and a strong military support from both foreign armies (Dothraki horselords and Unsullied warriors) and some Westerosi noble houses (the Greyjoy fleet and the armies of both House Tyrell and House Martell). In raising this point, Daenerys is implying that her triumph over Queen Cersei’s forces is very likely and thus it’s in Jon’s best interest to join her. Three reasons make this argument a weak one. First, joining Daenerys’ cause means that Jon will have to neglect what he deems to be the greatest threat to his subjects — the White Walkers. Second, while three dragons are not something one should so easily disregard, they are not invincible as we saw in Daznak’s Pit in Meereen in Season Five. Lastly, Daenerys’ naval forces suffered a significant blow when Euron Greyjoy’s Iron Fleet attacked and destroyed Theon and Yara Greyjoy’s ships on their way to Dorne in Episode Two. This has significantly weakened Daenerys’ strategic position. As Jaime “the Kingslayer” Lannister, Cersei’s brother and lover, correctly pointed out earlier in Season Seven: “no one wants to fight on the losing side.” So it’s understandable why Jon is not convinced (assuming that he is aware of this fact).

As to the King in the North, let’s hope that he is a better King than negotiator, having completely dropped the ball in failing to mention the purpose for which he came to Dragonstone: Dragonglass. With the help of this good friend Samwell Tarly, who is currently training to become a Maester at the Citadel of Oldtown, Jon has learned that Dragonglass is an effective weapon against the White Walkers. Since Dragonstone is built on a mountain of Dragonglass, Jon had originally intended to procure from Daenerys a mining license of some sort. When he appeared before the Mother of Dragons, however, he expressed his concerns about the White Walkers and their potential impact on the Seven Kingdoms as a whole but neglected to mention Dragonglass and his desire to mine it. His request for help against the Walker has been utterly rejected by the Mother of Dragons because she simply wouldn’t believe that they exist, let alone pose the level of threat that Jon was portraying. Luckily for Jon, Tyrion Lannister, who now serves as the Hand of the Queen to Daenerys, was willing to accommodate him: “it is not a reasonable thing to ask” he said, “so do you have anything reasonable to ask? […] I’m asking if there is something I can do to help you.” Only then did Jon ask for Dragonglass, a request Daenerys finally granted after Tyrion had put considerable pressure on her. Without Tyrion’s pragmatism, Jon would have ended up with no help and no Dragonglass.

III. “Give Him Something by Giving Him Nothing” — Choose Your Battles

Another key step in negotiating a deal is to know which points are worth fighting for and which are not. Making correct decisions in this way allows one to economize resources which are better spent by focusing on what is really important for achieving one’s objectives, rather than discussing immaterial points. A beneficial position to be in is one where something is absolutely immaterial to one party while extremely important to the other. One can easily win precious points with the opposing side by agreeing to grant a request that means nothing to their side but which is a must for the counterparty. A wise man once said (yes, Tyrion often presents his own statements as ancient wisdom, as Daenerys also noted): “give him something by giving him nothing.

Indeed, Daenerys is very lucky to have Tyrion Lannister by her side. He is truly a wise advisor and supreme negotiator. Being physically disadvantaged in the violent reality of Westerosi society, Tyrion had to develop excellent communication and negotiation skills. He is well educated, experienced in the domains of urban planning (the sewers of Casterly Rock), military strategy and warfare (the Battle of the Backwater) and diplomacy (Hand of the King to his nephew, Joffrey Baratheon, and Hand of the Queen to Daenerys). He is also well-travelled, has good judgment of character and a great understanding of the human mind. All these qualities make him well suited to assist his Queen in her negotiations. He quickly understood the importance of Dragonglass to Jon Snow against the White Walkers while acknowledging that it has no significance to Daenerys. He advised her to allow Jon to mine this substance by explaining that this was a win-win situation. Not that we ever doubted the silver-tongued Imp, but in this scene he has proved that his negotiation skills are unquestionably superior to those of his current boss, the Mother of Dragons.

IV. “When the War is Won” — Condition Precedent to Closing

While praising Tyrion’s talents we should not fail to mention another distinguished member of the formidable Lannister family of Casterly Rock — his sister Queen Cersei — who has also proven to be a smart deal-maker. Lannisters were portrayed as a ruthless, vengeful and sinful House (given Jaime and Cersei’s not-so-typical loving relationship!) from the get-go, but interestingly enough it has produced some of the most competent and skillful characters in the Game of Thrones series. Like her late father, Tywin Lannister, who singlehandedly re-established the Lannister reputation from a state of mockery and open rebellion (on the part of their vassals, the now extinguished House Castamere) by force, Cersei also uses more coercive negotiation tactics than most characters. As Lord Tywin underscored back in Episode Seven of Season One, fear can give significant advantage and leverage in certain situations. But fear is not always effective as a negotiation technique; if the opposing party is no longer afraid, the leverage is gone. Nevertheless, we can always trust that Cersei will figure out a way to find and exploit the weaknesses of any person, even a ruthless killer like Euron Greyjoy. It’s all she’s been doing for the last six and a half Seasons and she’s damn good at it!

Speaking of Euron, it’s fair to say the fresh King of the Iron Islands is not a pleasant fellow, to say the very least. He murdered his older brother Balon Greyjoy, the previous King of the Iron Islands, and is now on a mission to kill his niece and nephew, Yara (already captured) and Theon Greyjoy. Prior to this, he had started the Greyjoy rebellion to break away from the Seven Kingdoms. When this attempt was crushed he took off until we saw him for the first time in Season Six. Euron offered Cersei his support, his huge armada of ships and his services in exchange for her hand in marriage. It must be a challenge to negotiate with the greatest captain of the fourteen seas and someone who doesn’t usually pay the “gold price” but the “iron price!” However, Cersei is not strange to ambition; she can read an ambitious counterparty and perceives that he will not give up quickly. Earlier in this Season she declined Euron’s proposal because she considered him untrustworthy and treacherous, possibly suspecting that he might improve his offer or at least throw in something extra to prove his commitment. And throw in something extra he did, sweetening the deal by bringing to her Ellaria and Tyene Sand who were responsible for poisoning Cersei’s innocent daughter, Myrcella. A gift from her loyal Ironborn subjects and a genius move on his part after he correctly spotted Cersei’s unquenchable desire for revenge.

Euron’s gesture helped to seal the deal, but once more, wise Queen Cersei pulled another trick out of her proverbial hat: she agreed to marry Euron only “when the war is won.” An impressive spin that rewards Euron for his demonstration of loyalty but at the same time places a “condition precedent,” only upon the occurrence of which will the marriage deal close. This condition tied Euron to her cause, incentivizing him to actually contribute to the war effort before he can call himself King. A brilliant strategy to avoid being prematurely killed by her new husband who aspires to mount the Iron Throne. As Cersei once famously put: “when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” and she has every intention of winning.

V. “A Lannister Always Pays His Debts” — The Art of Presenting Risk Factors

How does Party A convince Party B that it should be in business with Party A rather than with Party C? A good sales pitch would emphasize the upside in dealing with Party A and the downside in transacting with Party C. But it is more art than science to decide how far to go before this pitch sounds too one-sided and biased and when the selling points are too weak. One should carefully analyze the facts presented and the risk factors highlighted. In Episode Three, Tycho Nestoris, an envoy from the Iron Bank of Braavos, pays Cersei a visit. Aside from offering condolences on the death of Tommen and congratulations on becoming the first Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, Nestoris came to accelerate the Crown’s debt owed to the Iron Bank. Without presenting any written credit agreement, Nestoris justifies the Bank’s sudden demand for immediate repayment by reason of the Crown’s engagement in an expensive war on several fronts. This endeavor is likely to impair the Crown’s solvency and, as a result, cause the Crown to default on its credit arrangement. The Iron Bank is worried about the Crown’s ability to service the debt as the royal vaults are empty or, in other words, its debt service coverage ratio (DSCR) is too low given its inability to produce enough operating income.

Cersei quickly realizes that the actual reason for the Bank’s liquidation of its position with House Lannister is the potential alternative investment opportunity arising in the form of its rival, Daenerys Stormborn. But instead of resorting to fairness arguments, as presumably the Mother of Dragons would do, she takes Nestoris through the risk factors relating to this alternative investment. She reminded him that it was Daenerys who liberated the slaves in Slavers’ Bay following a revolutionary reform that adversely affected the Iron Bank’s considerable investment in the slave trade. Whereas it is unlikely that the Iron Bank would ever have recourse against Daenerys’ former slaves, Dothraki warriors, or her dragons, House Lannister has the best credit history in Westeros — Lannisters always pay their debts (both financial and otherwise). Finally, Cersei has agreed to repay the debt in full within a fortnight upon Nestoris’ return to Braavos. Knowing Cersei as we do, I believe that this last part is another clever trick. I presume it is safe to interpret this promise as yet another successfully negotiated condition which Cersei forced into a deal, which will only trigger her repayment obligation when the banker actually returns to Braavos (you see where it’s going). Better yet, perhaps her words “and when you return to Braavos, I swear to you my debt will be paid in full” is another Lannister-styled threat: she intends to retaliate against the Iron Bank for demonstrating a lack of loyalty. After all, the saying “a Lannister always pays his debts” was not coined until after the Lannisters brutally quashed the Castamere rebellion and eliminated that entire family. This phrase is more often than not used to connote something negative rather than its literal meaning. So once again Queen Cersei has managed to negotiate her way out of difficulty, but this time opposite the most sophisticated lenders in all of Westeros and Essos. And what’s most impressive is that she didn’t even offer any additional collateral, full recourse arrangements, or personal guaranties! Nicely done Cersei, Tywin would have been proud!

VI. Epilogue: Caveat Emptor

Many would agree that one of the fortes of Game of Thrones is its (in the main) complex, well-rounded, realistic characters that constantly struggle with difficult decisions under extreme situations. As in real life, Martin’s characters (duly adjusted for the purposes of the show) engage in negotiations over collaborative actions, alliances, barter deals and financing transactions. As we have seen here, some demonstrate far better skills than others and this is even before mentioning some brilliant moves in previous Seasons by master-schemers like Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish and Lord Varys “the Spider.” The transactional aspect of Game of Thrones in general, and deal negotiations in particular, proves once again the complexity and depth of the plot and sophistication of character design in this series. No one is getting something for nothing; you often need to give in order to get (unless you are paying the iron price!). We can only hope for more fascinating examples of sophisticated deal negotiations in the coming episodes.

We should remember, however, that in Game of Thrones contracts can also be breached or entail unpleasant deviations from the originally agreed terms, and when they do, it doesn’t look pretty. Take, for example, Sansa Stark’s marriage to Ramsey Bolton (who turned out to be a monster after the wedding ceremony), the sacrifice of Princess Shireen Baratheon to the Lord of Light for a victory that never came, the beheading of Ned Stark (who was promised a pardon if only he confessed of treason), and the Red Wedding (…well it’s self-explanatory) as very graphic examples of such misfortunate outcomes. The old contract law maxim of caveat emptor (a legal principle that passes the responsibility for examining the condition and quality of purchased goods before the deal onto the buyer) has never been more vivid (and chilling!), but this is a subject for a separate discussion.