The challenge in many negotiations is crafting a solution that can win the support of enough key parties to implement a workable deal. That’s been a central theme in films I’ve previously named—as committee of one—Best Negotiation Movie of the year.

In 2012 Lincoln told the story of how the sixteenth President shrewdly inspired, persuaded, and sometimes bought off members of the Congress to secure adoption of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. The winner for 2015, Bridge of Spies, illuminated the complexity of multi-party negotiation in its portrayal of a swap of Soviet and American agents during the Cold War.

Sometimes, though, the noble task is derailing the negotiation process to avert a disastrous deal.  The skills and temperament required for pulling that off are at the heart of this year’s winner, Darkest Hour. Once again, history offers practical lessons about coalition-building, timing, and most important in this instance, drawing the line between what’s negotiable and what is not.

There’s no need for spoiler alerts here. The outline of the story is well-known. It takes us back to 1940, the early days of World War II. Newly installed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was under political pressure to secretly attempt a peace agreement with Nazi Germany.

From the start, he was adamantly opposed to any such talks, understandably so. In 1938 his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, signed the Munich Accord with Adolph Hitler and declared “peace for our time.” Less than a year later, Hitler violated the accord by invading Czechoslovakia.

Nevertheless, powerful figures in the British government argued for returning to the bargaining table with Germany. That option had to be explored, they asserted, given their country’s weakness militarily, even if the prospects for peace were poor. The German war machine was riding rough-shod over Europe. France was only weeks from falling. Hundreds of thousands of British troops fighting there were in peril of being captured.

Churchill himself was not in a strong position politically. He was loathed as a self-serving hot head by many in Parliament; and he was no favorite of King George VI. Why, then, did he flatly refuse to negotiate, rather than go through the motions to placate the peace advocates?

As the movie shows, Churchill recognized that negotiating means weighing the demands and proposals of the other side. He didn’t want to invite internal debate over what sort of concessions might be acceptable, or what degree of certainty was needed that the Germans would observe the terms. The momentum of process could push Britain inch by inch into making a deal that would leave them even more vulnerable.

The movie lays out how, in little less than a week, Churchill prevailed, not by getting everyone on board, but by building a sufficient coalition to carry the day. In present-day negotiation terms, Churchill used a “stakeholder map” to identify potential allies and isolate intractable foes. A seasoned politician, he understood patterns of deference, how landing one crucial player could prompt others to fall into line.

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Much of this maneuvering took place in small, private encounters with pivotal decision makers. Depending on whom Churchill was talking to, his conversations were a mix of logic, promises, threats, and pleas. (If you’re a history buff and want a deeper account of his strategy than any movie can provide, see John Lukacs’ riveting Five Days in London.)

Squashing the proposed peace talks laid the foundation for Churchill’s stirring speech two weeks later in which he declared to Parliament—and the world: We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

For Churchill, there was no middle ground. His words would have been hollow if he had simultaneously engaged in a diplomatic charade with the enemy.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse

Professor Mike Wheeler

About the Author

Mike Wheeler is a Professor of Management Practice, Emeritus at Harvard Business School and teaches the Negotiation Mastery course. Profesor Wheeler's current research focuses on negotiation dynamics, dispute resolution, ethics, and distance learning. He also co-directs the Negotiation Pedagogy initiative at the inter-university Program on Negotiation. He is the author or co-author of 11 books, and his self-assessment app—Negotiation360—was released early in 2015.