By the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School(www.pon.harvard.edu)
We've all met them -- those negotiators you don't want to deal with but find hard to avoid:
-- A boss who flies off the handle when things don't go his way
-- A longtime friend who tries to manipulate you with guilt trips
-- An important customer who threatens to drop you if you don't meet her terms
Sometimes you face a choice between engaging with a volatile counterpart and keeping your distance. Should you negotiate with bullies or remove yourself from the situation and pursue your alternatives?
More than a year ago, a political controversy in the United States erupted that offers insight into this question for our business and personal lives. During a June 2007 presidential primary debate, Senator Barack Obama was asked whether, as president, he would be willing to meet with the leaders of Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea. Obama said he'd be willing to meet with these difficult leaders because, as quoted in The Boston Globe, "the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding principle of (the George W. Bush) administration -- is ridiculous." The candidate stuck with this stance even after rivals Hillary Clinton and John McCain labeled him a naive optimist.
Long after Clinton dropped out of the race, and as the election approaches, the question remains a polarizing one: Should unpredictable, unlawful and potentially violent world leaders be isolated or engaged?
Business negotiators sometimes face a similar dilemma: negotiate with someone unpredictable, rude or hotheaded, or disengage and possibly miss out on a deal that serves your interests better than your alternative. Experts from the realm of international diplomacy offer three guidelines for those of us dealing with everyday tyrants and bullies.
1. Avoid isolation.
In line with the neoconservative "Bush doctrine" of pre-emptive war and unilateral action, McCain has asserted that meeting with enemy regimes lends them legitimacy and emboldens them to act against U.S. interests.
Although the question of whether the U.S. president should meet with dictators has been a heated issue in the 2008 presidential race, far less debate occurs among scholars of international relations. Most experts, including many political conservatives, believe it's better to maintain open communication with tyrants and other enemies than to sever ties with them. In fact, the very notion of isolating enemy nations marks a radical departure from "the last 2,000 years of recorded history," professor Graham Allison of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government told The Boston Globe.
In recent history, Ronald Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbachev during the Cold War, and Jimmy Carter helped break through the antipathy between the leaders of Egypt and Israel in the 1978 Camp David Accords. And although George W. Bush rejected the idea of meeting with the leaders of Iran and North Korea, ambassadors and lower-level diplomats in his administration have, in fact, met with their counterparts in these countries.
This tendency toward communication corresponds with the advice of negotiation experts as well. Whether through direct talks or shuttle diplomacy, it's usually a better strategy to engage with a difficult party than to isolate him -- regardless of whether you ultimately reach a deal. But under what conditions?
2. Preparation is essential.
Those who criticize the idea that the U.S. president should meet with enemies often point to President John F. Kennedy's June 1961 meeting with Nikita Khrushchev. From his vantage point as the older, wiser statesman, the Soviet premier took the opportunity to lecture the young president, who was just five months into his term of office. According to The New York Times, Khrushchev walked away with an impression of Kennedy as unprepared and weak. The Soviets pressed forward with construction of the Berlin Wall and began shipping nuclear missiles to Cuba. A year after his first meetings with Khrushchev, during the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy had another chance to assert himself against the Soviets. This time he was better prepared.
As this history lesson suggests, you should never underestimate the importance of thoroughly preparing for meetings with potential hard bargainers. In his book "Getting Past No: Negotiating with Difficult People" (Bantam Books, 1991), William Ury advises you to prepare, first and foremost, by understanding your own needs and interests. What are your hot-button issues? What behavior do you find unacceptable? When you understand your limits in advance, you'll be ready to stand up to tough treatment. In addition, by continually assessing and enhancing your alternatives to the current negotiation, you can ensure that you don't accept anything less than the best deal for you and your organization.
3. Preconditions may be counterproductive.
John McCain has been derisive of Barack Obama's original assertion that he would meet with the leaders of dictatorships without preconditions. Since then, Obama has insisted he would meet with dictators only on his -- and his country's -- own terms.
When facing a bully, should you establish any conditions for your talks? Not always, say experts in international diplomacy. For example, U.S. diplomats have met with their counterparts in Iran without first insisting that Iran give up its nuclear ambitions and recognize Israel. "(T)he danger of setting preconditions is then you can't talk about what you want to talk about," Harvard's Joseph Nye told The Boston Globe.
Rather than setting strong preconditions for talks with a bully, reflect on what you are likely to hear from your counterpart. Next, outline several proposals that you value equally and prepare to explain how they meet the interests of both sides, advises professor Lawrence Susskind of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Demonstrating your flexibility and willingness to accommodate the other side's interests can go a long way toward heading off a volatile response -- while still getting you what you want.