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One of the most effective ways to learn how to negotiate is to study the characteristics of some
of the world’s best-known negotiators and observe how they got it done.
Nelson Mandela and Henry Kissinger were two very different men with divergent life journeys,
yet both are still considered today among history’s best negotiators.
In a recent report on history’s best negotiators, Harvard University included the late Nelson Mandela. One contributor, Robert H. Mnookin, Harvard Law School professor and Program on Negotiation Chairman, named him the “greatest negotiator of the twentieth century.”
Mandela was renowned for a collection of eclectic characteristics that many believe empowered him to be a natural negotiator. These included patience, practicality, a strategic mind, and a tenacious, unwavering commitment to reaching an agreement.
While willing to concede when it mattered, Mandela also knew when to hold his ground. He knew he needed to counter a brutal regime and an atmosphere of polarized violence and resistance with an alternative message and approach. He opted to remain peaceful, calm, and thoughtful in the face of explosive emotions in both his adversaries and allies.
In so doing, Mandela found he could achieve outcomes impossible to accomplish through resistance or violence alone. One powerful example of this is when Mandela chose to negotiate peacefully with the very same South African apartheid government that had imprisoned him.
As Mnookin notes in his book, Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight, Mandela rejected the notion of needing to bargain with any devil, to ostensibly set his morals, ethics, and values aside, to achieve a gain in a negotiation.
The lessons Mandela’s negotiating principles can teach you for your own life include holding true to your values and rejecting any approach to resolving a conflict that doesn’t align with those values. Be willing to stand alone above, or at least outside of, the fray, offering a different solution than the prevailing paradigms. Let this perspective then empower you to treat your adversaries with more compassion and empathy.
Harold Abramson wrote a report for Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center entitled “Nelson Mandela as Negotiator: What Can We Learn from Him?” Mandela ultimately came up with a negotiation approach he termed BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) based on one of the essential tenets he discovered through his negotiating experiences. This was the idea that the degree of power you hold in a negotiation is linked directly to the alternative outcome if a resolution isn’t reached. By identifying this for both sides and keeping it foremost in mind, neither party becomes willing to leave the negotiating table until the outcome produced is mutually preferable to the BATNA.
The lesson here is to know what you are fighting for, so to speak. That is, what are the consequences for both sides of not negotiating? Address these stark realities first in a negotiation so both parties understand fully what is at stake if the negotiation falls apart.
While the Nixon administration rarely produces an immediate positive reaction in most people’s minds, at least one part of it exemplified true, exemplary performance and accomplishment, though not by Nixon himself. It was Henry Kissinger, both Nixon’s and Ford’s Secretary of State and National Security Advisor.
Today, China is a major economic force with strong ties to the US. But in the early 1970s, the two countries weren’t communicating much with one other. During his tenure, Kissinger established diplomatic relations with the Chinese and lowered the pressure on the geopolitical needle with the Soviet Union.
One of the characteristics that made Henry Kissinger such a master negotiator was his ability to listen. When negotiating with China, Kissinger observed Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, his counterpart, closely so he could match the man’s temperament. Instead of taking a dogmatic approach to his objectives, he remained modest and focused on building rapport and then a real relationship, eschewing the adversarial cloud hanging over them.
Kissinger was also an expert communicator, always framing his words clearly and directly, avoiding evasive or manipulative linguistic trickery. Communications between the US and the Soviet Union had amounted to little more than signals and maneuvers to interpret as each side would. So he opened a channel of direct communication linking to the two countries in an ongoing conversation where they reached real advances and resolutions.
From this, you can learn to avoid playing games in the ways in which you communicate with your counterparts. Rather, face them directly and communicate openly and honestly. Be straightforward and forthright in all your discussions, and it will encourage your counterparts to do the same.
The third element of both Kissinger’s approach to negotiations, and one that aligns well with that of Nelson Mandela, is patience. Kissinger knew that a true and lasting resolution of such entrenched and ages-old conflicts would not come quickly or easily.
Expecting an immediate, observable change from what appear to be successful negotiations is placing an unrealistic and unachievable expectation on it that only sets up both parties for failure. Incorporate a realistic time frame into your agreements that recognize the time it will take to implement the changes you’ve discussed.