An Encounter with a Negotiator

Stuart Diamond once negotiated himself out of the sights of a submachine gun in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Negotiating well, he says, is about noticing other people
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SILVER TONGUE Stuart Diamond could talk you into—or out of—anything (Photo: RAUL IRANI)

Stuart Diamond is a serial negotiator. He does for a living what Chris Sabian did in the 1998 film The Negotiator; only, he claims the movie was terrible and that what it showed wouldn’t have worked in real-life.

Diamond is an expert on cross-cultural negotiation and has advised corporate and government leaders on the subject in over 40 countries. The United Nations, no less, has consulted him.

He holds a law degree from Harvard Law School, where he was the former associate director of the Harvard Negotiation Project. Previously, he was a journalist with The New York Times, where he won the Pulitzer Prize as a part of a team investigating the crash of space shuttle Challenger in 1986.

Diamond is president and CEO of Global Strategy Group, which advises companies and governments on negotiating foreign investments and competing effectively. He teaches highly popular negotiation courses at Wharton Business School and Penn Law School.

Diamond is also the author of Getting More, in which he writes about the numerous tools, strategies and frameworks that make or break a negotiation. In an interview with Open, he speaks about his book and the psychology at work in a negotiation. Excerpts:

Q The tools, strategies and theories behind the art of negotiation seem quite daunting. Can negotiation be mastered? How?

A Negotiation should just be a conversation about what’s real. Not a game, not unnecessary stress. Watch kids negotiate—‘I’m happy’, ‘I’m sad’, ‘this is not working’—that’s a very good model. It doesn’t have to be necessarily complicated. Take things one at a time. Go into a store and ask for discounts. Get your children to do something they normally won’t. Try something new on the job. Most people aren’t conscious enough of what goes on around them. They must become more conscious of how they affect other people and what other people are thinking, and this takes practice. You have to step outside yourself and notice other people.

Q What are the biggest obstacles you anticipate for Getting More in the Indian market?

A India is a very traditional place. People are tied to what happened yesterday. They need to be more forward looking. Secondly, people fight over differences a lot in India. I believe differences create value. It makes people more creative. I only ask people to try to be more accepting of their differences.

Q How is your book different from others on spin-selling, persuasion and negotiation?

A My book is fundamentally different because it focuses on emotions, people and their perceptions as the starting point, instead of logic. In my 25 years of research, I have found that you can achieve six times better results when you focus on people and relationships, as opposed to logic. If you have no perception, you can’t make the human connection, and you have no starting point to persuasion. So all your proposals, however good they are, fall on deaf ears. I stress on the fact that the focus in a negotiation has to be on them.Constantly. What they have, what they want, how they will react. It is first about what they want, and then about what I want.

Q These strategies seem commonsensical, yet we falter. What is wrong with our brains?

A I don’t think we are wired the right way. I think people have grown up getting the wrong instructions. They watched TV, people [in] conflict with each other; they watched governments, governments [in] conflict with each other; even within their homes people are always conflicting with each other. People have become too pessimistic, negative and backward looking. It might be obvious retrospectively, but just because it’s in front of you doesn’t mean you will see it. If you are preoccupied with your psychological routine, if you can’t get out of your syndrome, you will not see it. Someone has to say, ‘Stop. Here’s another way.’ And once you see a solution or method working for you, you will own it. Then you will not forget it.

Q Who is your favourite negotiator?

A Gandhi. He simply said if Britain claims to be so civilised a nation, why does it kill innocent women and children in India? He brought down the empire without raising a voice or weapon. He set them against their own standards, he was empathetic, he didn’t make himself the issue, and he achieved [India’s] independence.

Q Here’s a situation that is a nightmare for many Indians; tell me how you’d handle it: a couple, fashionably dressed, runs into a group of drunk rowdy young men on the road. These men notice the woman and decide to harass the couple. Help is 5-10 minutes away. They must buy time. What would you do if you were in the man’s place?

A First I’d tell them they are terrific people;that I can see they are having a good time, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that people should be doing, going out, having a good time, etcetera. Then [I] might say something about the woman I’m with. I’d say, ‘Hey look, this woman is important to me. You should look at this woman like your sister. We are all brothers and sisters here. We are all dressed up, having a good time. Now I wouldn’t treat you badly, keeping your respect, so give me also a chance.’

Q What if they laugh at this?

A I’d ask them: ‘What do you want out of this situation? What do you want to do here? I just want to know. Here we are, two people, living their lives, having a good time. What do you want out of all this? I just need you to reflect, even if you are drunk. What will happen tomorrow if this doesn’t turn up so well? I have this important person in my life, who I have [brought] out here, just like everybody else. What do you want to do here?’ And then if they say, ‘We want to be friends with your date,’ I’ll say, ‘Yeah, well, that’s against the law. Do you want to take responsibility for that? You can do what you want, of course, you have all the power in the world, but you’re young, you have your whole life ahead of you, is this what you want to do? Do you want to use your power in this manner?’

Q What if they made an obscene remark about your date and your blood began to boil? How do you negotiate then?

A If I am boiling, I am not the right negotiator. The right negotiator is somebody who can establish a meaningful human connection with the other person. It might be the weakest member of your team. Doesn’t matter. In this situation, I might have to look for a third party somewhere around who I may be able to draw into the situation and help negotiate. Or it might have to be my date.

Q The man might panic, understandably. How can he stop himself from panicking?

A One of the ways is to lower his expectations about how he will be treated. If he isn’t treated well, he won’t be surprised and [will be] less disappointed. He’ll say, ‘Hey, I expected that.’ And if he is [treated well], so much the better.

Don’t get emotional. You won’t be able to think. Don’t take it personally. Don’t [let] your ego in. Maybe they are having a bad day, maybe they are having a bad life, maybe you are just a convenient target, but they are mad about something else. You can’t just give up saying that the people you are talking to are crazy. You can’t do anything about their craziness. You can either make them more persuadable or less persuadable. Be incremental in your approach. Go slow. Don’t just put your demands and desires on the table all at once. It all begins with them. Their opinions, their perceptions.

Q People often resort to force or violence to get out of such situations. How would you use a threat to get the job done?

A A lot of people threaten other people and it is not very useful. Let me show you a manner of giving the other person a reality [test], which is also a kind of threat, but much more useful.

Saying ‘If you don’t do X, I will not do Y’ is a bad way to frame it. In this situation, say that ‘I would love to treat you respectfully if you were in my situation. But I would only do it with people who would do me the same courtesy. Are you such people?’ Similarly, ‘I do alliances with companies that are fair. Are you such a company? I go to restaurants with good service. Are you such a restaurant?’ It’s the same threat. But it’s positive, forward looking, consultative. By making small changes in the way you frame your sentences, you can bring people large distances into the negotiation, by valuing them and giving them a choice.

Q Let me give you another situation one I’ve been through often. There’s no shortage of corrupt cops waiting to make money on the roads. How would you negotiate with one?

A Let me give you an example. A South American woman living in the States was once pulled over by a cop, who hated Latin Americans, and who decided to fine her $400, which was equal to her monthly rent. He went on and on about how Latin Americans illegally entered the US and took all the jobs and ruined the lives of the people and economy.

Instead of losing her head and filing a complaint, she first thanked him for doing his job. Then she said she agreed that illegal immigration was a problem and she empathised with him. But she respected the country’s laws and was there legally on a student visa. Could he please forgive her and let her go just this once? Of course, the cop let her go. This happened in the US, but I don’t see why it can’t be replicated here if you focus on making a human connection with the cop instead of abusing him, and try to find out what exactly might be bothering him.

Q What’s the most nerve-wracking negotiation you’ve been part of?

A I’ve had a submachine gun pointed to my stomach in [the Democratic Republic of the] Congo. I had been invited by the president of Congo to negotiate a $150 million diamonds-for-tanks deal with some Ukrainians. When we got there, we realised there were no diamonds. They couldn’t get them out of the countryside because there was a civil war raging. We wanted to leave, but the minister in charge of us said we weren’t allowed. The cops gathered our passports and essentially held us hostage. I asked the minister, did the president say we couldn’t take a tour of the country? He said we could. I said we wanted to go out for a drive. He said there is an active war outside. I said we could go for a drive with an armed guard. He said ‘okay’. I said we would like to go to the airport. He said we couldn’t leave. I said, of course, since he had our passports. But did the president specifically say we couldn’t go the airport? He said ‘no’. So we went to the airport. Once at the airport, I stepped out on the tarmac—it was unguarded. I said to the minister that he couldn’t hold us against our will. He said something in a guard’s ear [and he] promptly shoved a machine gun in my stomach. At this point, I thought, I represent the first part of this deal for the president. No way is the guard killing me without the president ordering [him to], if he values his life. But I realised I had to keep everybody calm. Then I said to them, ‘You’re right. You have all the power. We can’t leave unless you want us to.’ Just to keep them calm. Then I saw the pilot of our aircraft. I waved my tickets over my head so that he could see. He saw us and came over. I told him that we had tickets on his plane but those people wouldn’t let us go. To his credit, he said to them, ‘My responsibility to fly passengers out of this place comes out of a contract between my government and yours. If you want to continue having international planes land here, I want my passengers.’ The minister thought about it for a minute, made a phone call, got us our passports, and we left.

Q How does body language affect a negotiation?

A It’s very hard to read signals. You can’t tell whether somebody is lying or not by their body language. It’s very culturally sensitive. Of course, one may get better with practice, but for most people, it’s very easy to send out wrong signals or misinterpret what the other person is trying to convey. This is all the more so because we are all so different.

Q Speaking of differences, do you agree with the saying, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’?

A Absolutely not. People are bad actors. There is a very high chance your lie will be caught or you will come across as untrustworthy. Everybody knows we are all different. People don’t expect you to be like them. They expect you to be straight with them. When I go into a new culture, I say, ‘I wish I knew your culture better.I might mess up by accident in the next two days. Please advise me when I make a mistake. I’d rather be who I am. I want you to be who you are. And we should use our differences to create better solutions. Differences create value.’

Q How do stereotypes affect a negotiation?

A It is crucial to understand where people get their identities from in a negotiation. According to a study we are doing, people get their identities from—in this order—family, personality, other relationships, hobbies, occupation and then stereotypes.Macro-culture is almost irrelevant in a one-on-one situation. The fact that you are an Indian is of no relevance to me when I am looking at you as an individual. Can I negotiate with 1.2 billion Indians at once? No. I have to find out where exactly you draw your identity from.

Q What are your thoughts on The Negotiator?

A It’s a terrible movie. By threatening people, you increase the instability and stress level in a situation. Situations become unpredictable. That’s what that film showed. I don’t think I would have handled the situation that way. It worked in Hollywood, [but] it won’t work in real life. I would advise FBI hostage negotiators that when terrorists take over a building, you want to turn the air conditioning on, not off. You want to send in good food, not old food. Because comfortable and well-fed terrorists will kill fewer people. Send complete meals—large loves of bread, cheese and ham, lots of drinks and condiments. If the hostage takers end up having lunch with the hostages, it will be harder for them to kill the hostages, because they will have made a connection. In fact, one reason why hostage takers cover the eyes of their hostages is to avoid making [human] connections with them.