How To Negotiate Is A Skill To Be Learnt

It was puzzling and not any less amusing - the recent news about the possible fortuitous bumping between the Iranian President Rouhani and President Obama, which as we learnt, eventually never did take place. Now what kind of a person would think that these two would bump into each other rather than have a controlled, preplanned, coordinated, and deliberate encounter. Yet the media was abuzz with talk of serendipity. Why would such a hype even circulate! Why would people swallow such nonsense without thought and why would they – the reporters, as well as the masses expect the President to leave things to serendipity? That’s not how you negotiate at home with your kids and expect it to be successful. Then how can you think of the heads of countries doing that?

Negotiation is a tricky game whose rules change with the situation. There are times when one must act swiftly, and others when it makes more sense to wait and watch. And yet at all times one must know which way to act. For example, most would concede that swift action on Iraq was a bad idea. On the other hand slow action on Syria seems like a great one. The reason is that it calls for one of those deliberate, "not so fast" approaches. Just like you do not microwave a BBQ, you cannot hurry into a negotiation like this.

My good friend Jim Camp - one of the premier names in the world of multi-billion dollar negotiations, says that there is a whole lot more going on than meets the eye. In such negotiations, there are a lot of stakeholders, and a complex orchestration of outcomes is required. There are assessments to be made based on other assessments that, by the way, change depending upon the first assessment. You get the point - there are these cat and mouse games of deceptions and one-upmanship to be played that create artificial deliberations among a lot of people so that the crosscurrents can be managed. It is a lot like an orchestra. All people have to play their parts for good music to emerge. Yet faces have to be saved in the event of adverse outcomes.

Negotiating such rough terrains is difficult and the ignorant can form ill advised opinions. Many Op-Ed's malign Obama for his seemingly poor judgment, when in fact, the game has just started. It is actually poor judgment on the part of these journalists who are only looking to score points at the expense of important international negotiations. What they do not get is that smart negotiators do not worry about pride. They worry about outcomes. They are focused and do not compromise. Obama has been brilliant in getting Putin in a box, Assad in a bind, and he is keeping his options to strike open. Likewise, right now it seems the administration is setting the stage for negotiations with Iran. It is going to be a long and difficult road mainly because Iranian factions need to settle down and they can once they see that we are willing to invest in the process. But, as Jim says, we do not have to give up anything, but we do have to play the game and watch as the other party placates the hard liners at home and charms the rest of the world with possibilities.

Armchair commentators do not make negotiators. Negotiators make negotiators. How to negotiate is a skill to be learnt and mastered by leaders in business and politics and we hope that not too many of them are "Bulldozer Class" negotiators like Bush-Cheney or "ignorant class" ones who know little about negotiations yet write a lot about it.