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Firefly - Mal Reynolds and the Art of Negotiation

King County Bar Bulletin
August 2015


Negotiation is a fine art. While practice is helpful, many lessons can be learned from watching the masters. Malcolm Reynolds ("Mal") and his crew, on the television series Firefly, are such masters. Firefly was a 2002–2003 Joss Whedon, western-themed production set in space, and it provides a plethora of negotiation strategies that can be effectively applied to your legal practice.1

Firefly is centered on Serenity, a spaceship traveling in 2517, and its rebellious crew. Mal, the owner and captain of Serenity, is the future equivalent of a confederate officer after the civil war. The space system is governed by an authoritarian regime, called the Alliance.

All of the characters function on the edge of the law, but they also follow a strong, unspoken code of ethics. Despite occasional theft and smuggling, Mal steadfastly honors his deals while he remains loyal to his crew and consistently negotiates his way to safety. Mal and his crew are successful negotiators, even though they are often at odds with each other and always at odds with the authorities.

Approach Negotiations with Confidence

Negotiation is inherently adversarial. If you let your guard down, the opposing party can use your weakness to their advantage. Work from a position of apparent - if not actual - strength. Confidence can convey legitimacy and worthiness.

Developing confidence can be difficult, especially if you are nervous about the impending negotiation. Prepare for negotiations by considering the factors at issue, the interests of all parties to the negotiation, and what you consider to be a reasonable outcome. This preparation will provide you with a level of confidence and esteem to substantiate your arguments.

Avoid taking things personally by focusing on the objective aspects of the negotiation. Ideally, all parties will walk away from the negotiation in a better position than they were in when they started. Assert your interests with confidence and do not concern yourself with the potential of failure. If the other party did not want to negotiate, then they would not be speaking with you in the first place.

In Episode 8, "Out of Gas," Mal negotiates with Inara, a high-society courtesan, for the rental of his shuttle. During this negotiation, Inara says that Mal should lease the shuttle to her for one-quarter less than his asking price. She explains that Mal will benefit from having her on the ship because she will add an element of respectability. Her confidence and self-esteem in the negotiation allow Inara to rent the ship for significantly less than the asking price.

Know Your Opponent

Understanding the other side's needs and perspective can be an advantage in a negotiation. If you know what the other party is seeking, you can be better aware of what you should offer. You can also fashion deals that satisfy both sides' interests.

Use your background knowledge to your advantage. Before the negotiation, consider whether the other party's financial situation, power dynamic and identity could affect their abilities in the negotiation.

During the negotiation, pay attention to the other party's expressions and emotions. If the other party is angry, nervous, stressed or frustrated, then they could be a less effective negotiator. Ask questions to gauge their emotional state, focusing on inquiries beginning with "how," "why" and "explain." These questions require lengthy answers that can give you more information about the person's interests going forward. Once you are aware of the other party's interests and emotions, you can be better prepared to reach an outcome.

In the pilot episode, Simon, a surgeon and future Serenity crew member, used his limited knowledge of Mal to his advantage. It was clear to Simon that Mal cares deeply about his crew. Because Kaylee, the mechanic, was in dire need of medical assistance, Simon saw an opportunity.

Using what he knew of Mal, Simon offered to save Kaylee in exchange for what he needed: an escape from the Alliance. His awareness of his surroundings and his opponent's interests played to his advantage and Mal agreed to turn the ship around and run from the Alliance.

Credibility Is Key

While negotiations can be adversarial, they are not simply a game of winning and losing. Instead, parties to a negotiation can seek a mutually beneficial agreement. If trust is not shared, an agreement is unlikely. Why should the other party trust that you will uphold your promises if you are not credible?

Unless you have some reason to believe that the other party trusts you before the negotiation, you should assume that he or she doubts your honesty. Attempt to prove your credibility through strategically applying one or more of the following approaches: compromise, disclosure and empathy.

The first approach is to compromise. It is easiest to compromise if you have common ground or mutual interests with the opposing party. Consider whether you agree on a small issue in the negotiation before you confront the bigger issues. Agreement on even a small aspect of the negotiation is a great way to form trust.

The next method is disclosure. If you have a small piece of information that you are willing to share, mention it at the beginning of the negotiation. The other party will appreciate your honesty and cooperation, and will likely be more forthcoming in future dealings.

The final approach is to empathize with the other party. Place yourself in their shoes and reflect on the circumstances that steered them to negotiation. Be an active listener and, as mentioned above, know your opponent.

In Episode 4, "Shindig," Mal showed how important credibility can be in his attempts to win a job on Persephone, one of the more civilized planets in the galaxy. Initially, Mal was greeted with hesitation from Sir Warwick Harrow, a nobleman with cargo that needed transport. Mal proved his credibility and trustworthiness and earned the job by risking his life in a duel to defend the honor of a crewmember.

Sir Warwick explained that Mal's actions to protect his crewmate demonstrated his trustworthiness and got him the job. Even on a planet orbiting the photostar Lux, credibility can lead to success.

Beware of Various Tactics

Negotiation tactics are common. It is important to be aware of various tactics and to understand how they affect the process. While tactics are not always fair, they can be overcome if you recognize them and objectively consider their impact on your negotiation.

One example of Mal's profound ability to dispel tactics occurs in the pilot episode. During his negotiations with Badger, a smuggler, Mal demonstrates that he would not fall for any tomfoolery. He explained, "You're lookin' to put us on the defensive right up front, which means something's gone wrong. It didn't go wrong on our end; so, why don't we start again with you telling us what's up."

Rather than letting his opponent intimidate him, Mal took control of the situation and called his opponent's bluff.

Channel your inner Mal to determine how to best respond to the following tactics.


Intimidation can be effective, but it can also create a volatile environment. Consider whether you are becoming angry or irritated in a negotiation and determine the source of your frustration.

Also, like Mal, consider whether you are becoming defensive with the other party and whether that defensive reaction is necessary or appropriate. The best way to circumvent intimidation is to recognize it.

Time as a Tactic

Time can be used to create pressure in negotiation. Imagine a situation in which you have a deadline, but the opposing party is in no hurry to make a decision. If that party attempted to recess negotiations, it may make you more inclined to settle rather than push for a better deal.

Consider whether timing is essential to your aspirations and whether you are willing to accept a less ideal result in exchange for a prompt decision. If not, then consider whether to walk away from the negotiation.


Parties who make the first offer can "anchor" the negotiation to their interests. The "anchor" is an initial reference point that becomes the basis for all future counteroffers.

If an opposing party makes a first offer and it is significantly different from your expectations, consider whether the party is attempting to anchor the negotiation to their benefit. Depending on the situation, you may want to re-anchor the negotiation with a differing offer supported by objective data.

This response will let the opposing party know that you do not consider their offer to be reasonable and it will redirect the conversation.

Take It or Leave It / Final Offer

"Take it or leave it" is one of the most common negotiation tactics. This tactic is a threat to stop negotiating. Consider whether the opposing party actually intends to leave the negotiation or if this is simply a tactic.

If the party intends to leave and the offer is in your bargaining zone, you may want to accept the offer. However, if the offer is outside of your bargaining zone, know when to fold and leave the negotiation, as discussed below.

Know When to Fold

In some situations, negotiation can be a fool's errand. While the ideal negotiation ends with an agreement or meeting of the minds, sometimes agreement is unlikely and it is best to cut the negotiation short.

Before a negotiation, determine your needs. First, understand the best alternative to a negotiated agreement ("BATNA"), which is the outcome you expect to achieve if the negotiation is unsuccessful. Your BATNA may be a lawsuit, a more expensive contract or no contract whatsoever. At the end of the negotiation, the final agreement should be better than your BATNA.

Next, understand your aspirational value, which is your ideal negotiated outcome. At the beginning of a negotiation, it is important to have a high aspirational value. Aim high; otherwise, your "success" in the negotiation will be tolerable, at best.

Finally, know your reservation value. The reservation value is the lowest offer that you will accept and it should always be of a greater value than your BATNA. If the opposing party will not accept an offer at or above your reservation value, then there is no zone of possible agreement and the negotiation should come to an end.

If agreement is unlikely, Mal will not waste his time in negotiation. In Episode 2, "The Train Job," Mal attempted to renege on a smuggling deal with a client. The client's lieutenant refused Mal's offer, saying "Keep the money. Use it to buy your funeral."

At this point, knowing that agreement is unlikely, Mal kicks the lieutenant into the engine intake, thereby ending the negotiation. Because we do not live as renegades on a Firefly-class starship, your negotiation strategy should not result in the opposing party's demise. However, it is clear from analyzing Mal's experience that when an agreement is unlikely, you should accept your BATNA and leave the negotiation.

If only your work environment could be filled with as much loyalty, sincerity and excitement as Serenity. While watching Firefly, you can learn to approach negotiations with confidence, know your opponent, demonstrate credibility, beware of various tactics and know when to fold. We can all resemble Browncoats in our day-to-day lives by exhibiting these traits.

Please note that this article does not condone actual murder, violence or maiming in negotiation. All examples from Firefly are fictional. While the author believes that lessons can be learned from the general ideas in Firefly, these concepts should not be applied as demonstrated on television.

As published in the KCBA Bar Bulletin, August 2015


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