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12 lessons in effective negotiation...

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Exclamation 12 lessons in effective negotiation... - September 20th, 2007

For most of his professional life, Dennis Ross has been helping people with widely divergent worldviews understand each other.

As Middle East envoy and chief peace negotiator for both the Clinton and Bush senior administrations, he was a central player in many crucial initiatives and exchanges concerning the region, along the way amassing a huge knowledge and experience of moving forward seemingly intractable scenarios.

With the situation in the Middle East as delicately poised as ever, as Tony Blair, former British prime minister, attempts to build support for his role as an envoy on behalf of the "quartet" (the U.N., E.U., U.S. and Russia) and with some observers even arguing that it may be time to consider talking to al-Qaeda, with all the possible implications of that, the need for skillful dialog and sensitive interaction has arguably never been greater.

Ross is now a counselor and distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in the nation's capital. His latest book, Statecraft - And How To Restore America's Standing in the World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26) is a fascinating account of some of the key moments of diplomatic decision making in recent years.

In it, Ross talks of approaches to both negotiation and mediation but also of the central importance of implementation: being able to deliver what you promise. And he believes that the lessons learned in international diplomacy have a direct relevance to the dealmaking process in the corporate world.

He recently spoke with Forbes.com about the "12 steps for effective negotiation" that he sets out in the book and just how much value there is in understanding how to arrive at a practical and pragmatic negotiation strategy, whether in politics or in business.

1. Know what you want, know what you can live with.
"In a high-stakes negotiation," Ross writes, "each side may know what it wants in the abstract, but not really have thought through what it may be able to accept." He continues: "If you don't know what you want, your negotiating partner will develop a vision that serves his/her posture in the negotiation but not yours."

2. Know everything there is to know about the decision maker(s) on the other side.
While it's largely impossible to have perfect knowledge of what you're up against in any negotiation, Ross says it's important to establish that you know what their motivation is for entering the discussions, as well as where the influence lies on their side and what they need to take from the encounter. It also helps, he says, to have an appreciation of what external forces or pressures might affect their position.

3. Build a relationship of trust with the key decision maker.
Following on from the previous rule, it is important to "do a reading of the situation and get a sense of the lay of the land," says Ross. You can build a relationship of trust by establishing your credibility and through what Ross calls "active listening," aimed at understanding your negotiating partner's needs and concerns.

4. Keep in mind the other side's need for an explanation.
Both sides will need to explain to their own constituency why they are participating in the negotiations and what is in it for them. In a business scenario, both sides will be selling the idea of a deal to their respective employees and shareholders, but also to the investment community; hence, both sides will want to prove that they are skilled negotiators and show how the exchange can be of mutual benefit.

5. To gain the hardest concessions, prove you understand what is important to the other side. "Some negotiators can fail because they just come out and say what they want rather than show any understanding of what the other side wants, or needs," Ross says. And a large part of knowing what the other side wants is being sensitive to what they will be able to sell to their supporters.

6. Tough Love is also required.
"Empathy in isolation has its limitations," writes Ross. "While it creates an opening and a readiness for the other side to consider what might previously have been inconceivable, it is unlikely on its own to produce agreement. For that, there must also be an understanding that there is going to be a consequence."

7. Employ the good-cop, bad-cop approach carefully.

"In the end," Ross writes, "explaining constraints: what is possible, what isn't and the circumstances under which change can take place is essential for setting a context in negotiations--and laying the groundwork for what any good cop must do to demonstrate that he needs help to prevail against the bad cops on his side."

8. Understand the value and limitations of deadlines.

Ross once said that "Timing is to statecraft what location is to real estate." When asked if there were circumstances where a "bad" deal in a specific window of opportunity might be more advantageous than a "better" deal that might take longer, he said, "Bad deals by definition are always bad." But that sometimes "you have a moment of opportunity to do an acceptable deal that might not be the best deal," and that by holding out you might lose the chance for the acceptable deal.

9. Take only calculated risks.
"Neither side ... wants to send the signal that it needs the negotiating process or deal more than its opponent, or that it fears a breakdown so much that it will make the concessions needed just to keep the other side in the game. That is surely a slippery slope."

10. Never lie, never bluff
Ross stresses that any negotiator's credibility is his most important asset, and that a big part of any negotiation is how the different actors establish and emphasize their authenticity and bona fides.

11. Don't paper over differences.
It may go against human instinct, Ross says, since in any endeavor we naturally want to have a positive outcome, but the desire to leave a meeting with a good feeling can be dangerous, since it can store up difficulties that will have to be resolved later.

The twelfth and final lesson, Summarize agreements at the end of every meeting, may seem at face value the most simple, but it is a logical extension of the need to avoid misunderstanding, and a mechanism whereby negotiators can work on a shared platform and avoid the necessity of fixing the foundations later.

Since his book is almost a who's who of international diplomacy, Ross says the success of negotiation is in large part a function of the personalities at the table. Hence, as we enter the closing stages of the current presidency, how much of ongoing negotiation will essentially become a do-over when the players change?

To that, he said that when there is a change in participants there is also a legacy: The players "have to come to understand the legacy that brought everyone to that point." And while that includes being sensitive to hints and nuances from previous contact, to an extent, he said, it will be like a "start-up class"; and this is why the idea of "active listening" is so central to the approach.

In the type of one-off negotiation that might be more common in the business world, Ross said, "the calculus changes--but credibility is still important. What do you want your reputation to look like?"

And, he said--in an observation that is certainly as true in business as it is in international relations--there is no negotiation "where ego doesn't play a part."
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