I was recently reading Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story Of My Experiments With Truth.
I stumbled upon a story that involves a train ride. The story also happens to validate a great principle of negotiations which I’ll point out later in this article.
The story dates back to Gandhi’s days in South Africa. South African law required Indians (or ‘coolies’ as they were called by the white South Africans) to travel third class on trains. Soon after arriving in South Africa, Gandhi learned first hand about this rule when he was thrown off for trying to ride in a first-class car. It was an insulting episode in his life and made a deep impression on him. What is less well known is that Gandhi immediately looked for a second opportunity to challenge the rule on a train from Durban to Pretoria. This time he succeeded. He did so by using an ‘audience’ to overcome a negotiating opponent.
Gandhi’s position in this negotiation was that “well dressed and well behaved people can travel first class, regardless of race.” The railway company’s position was that “coolies must travel third-class.” Gandhi anticipated this and his step-by-step approach is a model of effective preparation to achieving goals in the most difficult situations.
Gandhi’s first move was to locate a decision maker and find a way to present his request for a first-class ticket personally in a face-to-face meeting. He obtained the name of the stationmaster in Durban and sent him a letter. Gandhi wrote that he was a barrister who was accustomed to travel first-class. He said he would present himself at the stationmaster’s office the following day to obtain his ticket. By leaving no time for a reply, Gandhi successfully averted the possibility of getting a ‘no’ by mail. The stationmaster would have to discuss Gandhi’s request in person, and Gandhi knew he had a better chance if he could plead his case personally.
Gandhi appeared before the stationmaster the next day in what Gandhi describes as ‘faultless English dress’: He wanted to impress the stationmaster with a basic fact – that both of them were from the same social class, even if they were of different races.
“You sent me the note?” asked the stationmaster.
“That is so,” said Gandhi. “I shall be much obliged if you give me a ticket. I must reach Pretoria today.”
Now came a bit of good fortune, thanks to Gandhi’s insistence on a personal meeting. “I am not a Transvaaler,” said the stationmaster. “I am a Hollander. I appreciate your feelings, and you have my sympathy.”
The stationmaster issued Gandhi a ticket – but – on a condition that Gandhi not involve him if the train conductor later challenged the ticket. Gandhi agreed, although this eliminated an authoritative ally who could have proven to be more than useful later.
“I wish you a safe journey. I can see you are a gentleman,” the stationmaster concluded.
Now came the hardest part. Gandhi had to figure out a way to convince the conductor, who would not be from the same social class, who would be a Transvaaler, to let him stay in first-class.
Here is where Gandhi made use of something called the ‘audience’ principle in negotiations. He needed to find someone who would be sympathetic to his “well dressed and well behaved people can travel first class” position and to whom the conductor would feel answerable to (in some manner).
Gandhi walked along the corridor in the first-class car until he found the audience he was looking for: an englishman sitting in first-class compartment by himself, without any South African whites present. Gandhi sat down, holding his first-class ticket and waiting for the conductor to arrive.
When the conductor came, he immediately saw that Gandhi was Indian and angrily demanded that he move to third-class. Gandhi showed him his ticket. “That doesn’t matter,” said the conductor.
Then Gandhi’s “audience” who was observing this rude behavior spoke up. “what do you mean by troubling the gentleman?” he asked. “Don’t you see he has a first-class ticket. I don’t mind in the least his traveling with me.” The Englishman then turned to Gandhi and said, “You should make yourself comfortable where you are.”
“If you want to ride with a Coolie, what do I care?” said the conductor. The conductor retreated and Gandhi completed his trip in first class.
The Wharton Negotiation Program says this on the audience principle: “In difficult cases, you will need to search for an ally – a third party to whom your bargaining counterpart is answerable to and who is sympathetic to your norms. Once you can locate such a person, you need to arrange things so you negotiate in the third party’s presence or under their protection. Allies serve as audiences to guarantee the application of standards that ought, in fairness, to apply. In essence, you leverage the audience’s consistency to bypass the party that opposes your goals.”
Gandhi used the Englishman as an audience to temporarily overcome the unjust standards of the South African law. Later in his life he would use the world public opinion to expose Great Britain’s unjust treatment of the Indian people – and help India win independence.