Negotiations with our Ancestors

Stories and guiding myths get passed down through generations and shape how we approach negotiations in our daily life. Many situations we face for the sake of personal growth and global progress require each of us to renegotiate relationships with family members, as well as our deceased relatives and cultural heroes.

A key argument I make in Negotiating Inside Out is that one of the hardest parts of any negotiation is the one that happens inside your own head. Your own values and beliefs often get in the way of getting what you want. Sometimes, the values and obligations inherited from our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and ancestors have the most profound effects.

Influence of our ancestors

Ancestry plays a powerful part in each of our everyday lives. Our heritage shapes our cultural norms and many of the values that we use to script our lives.

War, for example plays an integral role in many cultures. Most people have ancestors whom fought and died for freedom, their country or religion. In the U.S., for example, the Revolutionary War has been glorified along side the founding of our nation and constitution. This plays out today during political disputes and negotiations as people point to the sacrifices made and the perceived genius of the founding fathers as a way to defend their deeply held values.

In some cultures, war with neighboring countries or tribes has been sanctified in the Bible, Bhagavad Gita and other religious writings. These ancient texts and conflicts still play an integral part in brokering peace centuries later.

Even beyond the myths of war, stories of the sacrifices our grandparents and parents made so that we could have the opportunities we have today have been told to us since we were children. And thus, we each get trapped in a matrix of guilt and obligation to the past while being confronted with the desire to move our people and ourselves forward.

These obligations to the past create internal struggles when it comes time to negotiate a situation that diverges from our historical paths.

The voices of our ancestors can be ever present if we let them.

How can you negotiate with an Israeli? They stole our family home and ran us off our own land.How can you even talk to a Palestinian? We have fought wars and our people have died defending our land and homes.We worked hard so that you could go to college, why are you wasting your life taking this dead-end job?

Variants of these conversations echo through each of our minds daily.

How will you renegotiate the relationship with your family when you’re faced with the decision to drop out of college and pursue a new dream? How will you renegotiate the relationship with your ancestors when you enter into a negotiation to broker a peace agreement with their sworn enemy?

What conversations will need to take place? How will you disappoint them?

How to negotiate with the dead

Each of us communicates with our ancestors in our own way. Maybe we visualize conversations with our deceased relatives, maybe we hear their voices or feel their presence, sometimes we just sense their influence, or we pay respect in church or through sacred rituals. And, yes often times the people we must answer to are still very alive and play important roles in our life.

Regardless of how you chose to negotiate with their presence, there are 5 steps you can follow to put them in perspective and move forward.

  1. Recognize their role – In order to negotiate with the dead, we must recognize and identify the role they’re playing. Are they your parent, a deceased prophet, an ancient deity? Acknowledge their presence and ask yourself how they are impacting the situation in front of you.
  2. Honor them – We can learn a lot from our ancestors. They fought wars to defend our lands and freedoms; and they’ve sacrificed so that we could prosper. Its critical to listen to those that came before you and learn from their life lessons, just as you would from someone that you admire today. Honor their work, their sacrifices and the values they died for. History has a way of repeating itself, and we should each pay attention.
  3. Decide what to let go – Our ancestors lived in a much different time and place than us. What worked for them may not be appropriate for you. To live our own lives, to create a better future for ourselves and children we must chose those parts of our heritage which we keep and consciously let go of the things that no longer serve us.
  4. Disappoint them – As you diverge from the path of your ancestors you’re going to disappoint some people. Maybe your father is disappointed in your choice of profession or maybe your deceased grandmother would be disappointed that you’re about to negotiate a peace agreement with a neighboring country that requires you to cede land that was once hers. Whatever the case, recognize that you’re going to disappoint someone because you’re not upholding the values they feel you should. If they’re dead, then let it go. If they’re alive, then disappoint them at rate they can absorb. But either way move forward.
  5. Lean into life – It goes without saying that your life is yours. Only you can choose the battles you fight or don’t. When you’re anchored in your purpose and the outcome you want to negotiate, then by all means lean into it. Life is messy but keep your vision in mind and keep moving towards it.

Lastly, while each of us needs to negotiate with our ancestry on our own terms, this holds true for communities and entire societies as well. There are 7 billion of us now living on one tiny planet. Things that were true in the past no longer stand-up to new realities. We are going to need to collectively bargain with each other and renegotiate with our collective pasts. Wars, both ancient and recent will need to be put behind us; country lines will need to be redrawn and religious obligations will need to be reconciled.

Until then, we can each start the negotiation inside our own hearts and minds.

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