News and Events

The Eighteenth Camel

View profile for Ben Clulee
  • Posted
  • Author

Family Law Group Mediation work towards a WIN-WIN situation for all clients and here is a short story about negotiation to illustrate the point.

Many years ago, a man died and left his camels to his three sons; one-half to the oldest, one-third to the second son, and one-ninth to the youngest. However, there was a problem--he had only 17 camels.

A dispute quickly arose among the brothers. The eldest son argued that the father's will was in error because one-half, one-third, and one-ninth do not add up to a whole. He felt that he should receive all the camels because this was the tradition in the community. The middle son said his wife had the potential to be very ill and pleaded for an extra camel so that he could sustain his family. Although the story was not true, it seemed like a good idea at the time to get that extra camel at all costs and deal with the family fallout later. The youngest son argued that what was allocated to him was actually one-sixth because a number reversal had occurred.


The adversarial negotiation escalated. The feud became so heated that the families did not speak to each other. The brothers no longer allowed their children to play together and terminated all joint ventures between themselves. One of the siblings even thought of killing some of the camels or one of his brothers. The brothers desperately needed to resolve this conflict. They finally agreed to go to a wise old woman in the community and tell her of their problem. They gave her the right to arbitrate their dispute and to dictate a solution. She said, "I am old and unable to ride my camel anymore. Why don't you take my camel? Then you will have 18 camels and you can divide them among the three of you."

The brothers gave half (or 9 of the 18 camels to the eldest son, a third (or 6) of them to the second son and a ninth (or 2) of them to the youngest son. One camel remained. The brothers were able to agree that they should return it to the old woman.

The objective of mutual gains negotiation is to discover that 18th camel. The "pie" is not fixed; what I get, you do not lose. The image of a pie illustrates the available resources to be divided among the negotiating parties. The pie is fixed in adversarial negotiations-there are only 17 camels to divide and the solution is elusive. The only choice is concession or compromise in which no one wins. In mutual gains negotiations, the pie is not fixed. If parties think together, they can "expand the pie"; that is, increase the available resources and enlarge them to discover and distribute the 18th camel. The challenge is to discover a new solution, one that expands the pie and enables all the participants in a dispute to win, as did the brothers in the story. The 18th camel story may sound all too magical and perhaps too simple. Sometimes the solution is simple. To see the solution, however, the parties must be willing to collaborate in order to discover their real interests. Also, they must want to use a joint problem-solving approach rather than a "demands, confrontation, and concession" method that at best produces compromise.