The Washington Diplomat

the deal

Professor Says Diplomats Should Learn Art of Negotiating
by John Shaw

Michael Benoliel is a university professor and consultant who believes that negotiation is a crucial skill that all diplomats should learn.

In an interview with The Washington Diplomat, Benoliel offered a specific, if unsurprising, piece of advice on how diplomats can become better negotiators: They should read my book, he said.

The book to which he was referring is his recently published Done Deal: Insights from Interviews with the World's Best Negotiators. Benoliel's book is based on interviews with top negotiators from around the world, including former officials such as U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, Sen. Bill Bradley, Sen. Robert Dole, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, U.S. special envoy Dennis Ross, and Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval.

Interviews with these master negotiators coupled with Benoliel's own experiences have given him strong ideas about negotiation as a craft and a skill.

To a large extent negotiating skills can be learned. With practice and personal discipline you can become a better negotiator. You can learn to master the substance of issues, Benoliel said. This takes some cognitive skills. And you can develop your social intelligence and your emotional intelligence. There are whole areas you can learn. However, there is a component you can never learn if you don't have it.

He added: Negotiation mastery may be inborn for some, but for most it's a learned and practiced skill. Negotiation requires incredible, incredible discipline.

Benoliel has been a professor for more than 15 years. He teaches conflict resolution and effective negotiation in the master's of business administration program at Johns Hopkins University, and the graduate executive program at the University of Maryland's University College and at National-Louis University.

A certified mediator, Benoliel heads up the Center for Negotiation, [Center for Negotiation Analysis] a firm offering services in conflict management, mediation, effective negotiation, strategic planning, leadership and team building. He has worked with organizations in the United States, East Africa and the Middle East.

Benoliel said he's long been fascinated with negotiation, in part because of its importance and complexity. He also believes that negotiating is an exciting, energizing and deeply satisfying mental activity.

Negotiating is so interesting. It touches on so many subdisciplines: social psychology, personal psychology and economics, he said. During negotiations, people make hundreds of intuitive decisions.

Benoliel said one of his central convictions is that the search for an agreement should not become an end unto itself. Working together doesn't mean compromising your interests. It means looking for ways to achieve your interests. The moment you need to compromise your interests is the moment you should walk away from the table, he argued.

The mindset of the negotiator is to come to the table to create mutual value. It's not about signing an agreement. It's about what happens after the agreement has been signed. Does it hold? Can it be implemented?

Benoliel said there are a number of mistakes that negotiators often make, including insufficient preparation. We don't invest enough time in planning. We underestimate the value of preparation. We tend to be overconfident and underestimate the other side. The other side won't compromise on a major strategic issue just because of pressure, he said.

Too many negotiators come to the table without knowing in a precise way what they want, he added. It's important to know what your interests are, what your bottom line is, when will you walk away from the table, what your best alternative to a negotiated agreement is.

Benoliel argues that not enough negotiators listen carefully and ask good questions. We don't ask enough questions. We don't probe. We don't elicit enough information when we are at the table, he said. As Dennis Ross says, listening is very strategic. It is very important to really listen to the other side. Instead of carefully listening to what is saidor not saidwe tend to just repeat our argument as if mere repetition will convince the other side.

Benoliel said too many negotiators also get locked into an approach or an outcome and don't use talks to probe for new ways to secure their goals. We tend not to be fully creative in developing alternatives and tradeoffs, he said.

He pointed out that there is little to gain in setting artificially tight deadlines and that negotiators should support deadlines that are justified. There is a point when the process should and must end. When you have a strong sense when there is no deal here, you should walk away, he said.

Although many of Benoliel's lessons come from good negotiators, some of his insights come from bad ones. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is described in Done Deal as a strikingly inept negotiator, combining weak interpersonal skills with shifting strategic goals that left all sides deeply confused. Barak's very intelligent cognitively, but not when it comes to social or emotional skills, Benoliel said.

In his useful, well-organized and very readable book, Benoliel offers 10 thematic suggestions for all negotiators:

1) Enter the room well armed. Benoliel argues that all successful negotiators need to master the substance of their brief or they will face an information deficit that will come back to haunt them. He added that if you know the substance of the issues under discussion, you will be able to articulate your arguments, prevent surprises, have ready responses, and project an authoritative competence.

2) Know your objectives and the bottom line. Benoliel said it's important to enter negotiations with a clear sense of what your objectives arewhich ones are essential and which ones are not. And it's only when both sides believe the objectives on the table are credible and the bottom lines are real that bargain hunting will stop and serious negotiations will commence.

3) Build relationships. Benoliel believes it is crucial to build a relationship with those on the other side of the table, but he cautioned that it's also important to disentangle relationships from concessions.

4) Negotiate from both sides of the table. Benoliel said it's important to make the mental trip to your competitor's side of the table and understand the negotiations from their perspective. He cited research showing that negotiators tend to ignore even readily available information about the views and aspirations of the other side.

5) Nurture trust. Benoliel calls trust one of the strongest predictors of negotiating success. Trust, he said, sometimes involves taking a risk that the other party is dealing with you honestly and in good faith. He quotes Shimon Peres on this: Occasionally the riskiest thing is not to take a risk.

6) Think strategically. Benoliel said negotiators should know what they want and work carefully to frame the talks so they influence, not distort, reality.

7) Enhance negotiating power. Benoliel pointed out that it's critical to assess strategic power in the negotiations. This involves analyzing the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of your positionand the other side.

8) Design the architecture. Benoliel said the negotiating agenda should be realistic, well sequenced and organized for constructive deliberations and decisions, noting that negotiators should select a venue that will facilitate the discussion.

9) Manage the process. It's important to manage all the decisions and behaviors that take place at the negotiating table. According to Benoliel, this requires that negotiators reflect as the talks unfold, as well as after the negotiations conclude to learn lessons that can be used in the future.

10) Avoid ultimatums. Benoliel said ultimatums rarely work and are often counterproductive. He added that you should give ultimatums only if you are willing to follow up on them, and when you receive an ultimatum, it often makes sense to defuse it with humor.

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

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