A Tale of Two Brooks: The Importance of Communication in Negotiation

By Megan Winkeler

Over the weekend, three NBA teams learned some tough lessons about the importance of communication in negotiation after a trade deal among the Memphis Grizzlies, the Phoenix Suns, and the Washington Wizards fell through. While the details of the trade are a bit complex, the ultimate goal of the deal was for Washington to acquire a veteran player named Trevor Ariza, who currently plays for Phoenix. To make the logistics of the deal work, Washington and Phoenix brought in Memphis. Washington and Memphis put forward several players in exchange for Ariza: Kelly Oubre and Austin Rivers from Washington, as well as Wayne Selden and someone with the last name Brooks from Memphis.

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If you are looking back at that last sentence to see if you read it correctly, it’s not a typo. Memphis has two players with the last name Brooks – Dillon Brooks, a twenty-two-year-old small forward with a lot of skill and potential; and MarShon Brooks, a twenty-nine-year-old shooting guard who was out of the NBA playing in China last season. Somehow, Washington and Phoenix thought that Dillon Brooks was part of the trade deal; Memphis, however, was offering MarShon Brooks. Seemingly, no one confirmed which Brooks it was until the deal was about to be finalized.

When the teams discovered that they were talking about two very different Brooks, the trade talks broke down and temporarily ended. The impact rippled throughout the league (and on Twitter). Some players were already informed about the trade, and many of the details were being talked about widely in the press. The breakdown of the trade happened in such a public and embarrassing way over the course of just thirty minutes that it seemed almost unbelievable.

Ariza ultimately was traded to Washington, but the resulting public embarrassment and locker room tension could have been avoided with improved preparation, reflection, and communication. As negotiation trainers and consultants, we see the following as three important lessons to take away from this case study:

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare:    As Paul Pierce suggests in this video, each team should have been aware that there were multiple Brooks playing for Memphis had they prepared more effectively. It can be easy to jump right into a negotiation without spending time preparing, especially in a fast-paced, high-stakes industry like professional sports. As we’ve stated before, however, preparation is an essential part of the negotiation process. The time and effort spent on this step will pay off in dividends during the negotiation itself.
  • Question your assumptions:   It’s interesting that each team assumed that the Brooks in play was the one who benefited them the most. Phoenix would have preferred the young up-and-comer Dillon, while Memphis would have preferred dealing a deep reserve player like MarShon. It’s easy to laugh at a situation like this and think that we would never make such a mistake. However, we all rely on assumptions. When we act upon assumptions without questioning them first, we create situations ripe for misunderstanding. If you find yourself talking to someone and feel like you are talking past one another, ask yourself: is there a conclusion or assumption I’m making that might be different from the other side?
  • Confirm your understanding – early and often:   Luckily, each team ultimately recognized their error and were able to make a trade work. Miscommunication happens – you cannot prepare for everything, and you cannot expect to be perfect. However, we can increase the likelihood that we catch miscommunications earlier in the negotiation process by confirming our understanding of what our counterpart is saying. Utilizing active listening techniques, we summarize what our negotiation counterpart is saying. If we have misunderstood them – or if we are talking about two different things, as in the case of the Ariza trade – we can clarify it up front and keep it from possibly derailing the negotiation in the future.

This messy trade negotiation delivers one final lesson: when you make a mistake during a negotiation, you can use it as a chance to improve moving forward. Reviewing your negotiations is as important as preparing for them because it allows you to learn and grow, and you can utilize those lessons in your next negotiation to continue improving your skills and negotiated outcomes.

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To improve your negotiation preparation process and improve your negotiation results, consider attending or organizing a negotiation skills workshop with MWI. You can also reach out to Chuck Doran at 617-895-4026 or cdoran@mwi.org to learn more about you might benefit from a negotiation skills workshop.

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