What great leaders can teach us about the art of making a deal

There are six lessons we can all learn from the best negotiators, writes Tom Fletcher

Meeting between US President Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the historic 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
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The new school term is finally underway, with its usual heady mix of promise and anticipation, excitement and exhaustion. The roads are suddenly busy at drop-off and pick-up times. The school uniforms are baggy but pristine: they won't stay either way for very much longer.

I find kids much better at adapting to these moments than their parents. As I left my five-year-old yesterday, I just about got a "Bye, Dad" before he disappeared enthusiastically into the mêlée with barely a backwards glance. If he has any separation anxiety it is mainly about his Lego.


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A new term is also the moment when many of us, parents and non-parents, make our plans for the coming year. We start to broker the hundreds of agreements and compromises that make up family or office life. So as those negotiations get going, I wondered what we can learn from the greatest diplomats and leaders and about how to strike the perfect deal? And can we apply these to the negotiations we face each day on who does the school run, gets the office with a nice view or haggles a nifty brunch discount? I’ve looked at the toughest negotiations in statecraft, and watched many extraordinary deal-makers in action. Maybe the stakes in our daily lives aren’t always quite as high, but that’s no reason not to try. And I think there are six lessons we can learn from these ninja negotiators.

Firstly, know your interests and those of the person with whom you are negotiating. What is your real red line and where do you think you could make your concessions? And what about your opponent? Ronald Reagan ensured that Mikhail Gorbachev blinked first in the Cold War because he understood the theatre of the negotiating process, but also knew where he could push hardest and where he could concede. One-sided negotiations, such as the Versailles Treaty that followed the First World War, rarely deliver lasting results. I’ve watched leaders build in negotiating fat that they are then relaxed about trading away. Maybe you can live without the tattoo of the entire West Ham team that your partner is so determined to prevent?

Secondly, keep focused on some form of common vision, to remind everyone what is really at stake. Again and again in big peace processes, those who go on to win the Nobels are those who keep everyone’s eye on the prize. At the end of the talks, there will be a peace agreement between two warring parties and a generation will be saved. Look at the Berliners who made the case that we have more in common than that which divides us. Or, maybe closer to home, if we work together the kids will manage to get to their rugby practice on time most weeks. The Nobel Committee can then sleep easy.

As part of this effort, shape the expectations of all sides: veteran peacemaker George Mitchell said that negotiations are “700 days of failure and one day of success”. That feeling may be all too familiar to anyone trying to enforce an iPad timeout.

Third, build alliances. Who else out there shares your interests, and can they help you win the arguments? At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the French master diplomat, Talleyrand, managed to turn a losing hand into a winning one by forming a coalition of all the countries left out of the room by the "big four" – Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia. Maybe that brilliant pincer movement with the families on the same floor gets that dodgy corridor light fixed faster.

Fourth, offer up some tactical concessions, at the right moment. When the Northern Ireland peace process was underway, we Brits would often find that financial concessions to the political parties helped to shift the negotiations the right way. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s brilliance was that he found a way to give the FW de Klerk government a stake in the success of the transition. Maybe it is time to accept that extra visit by the in-laws. As JFK said, “let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate’.


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Fifth, understand that every negotiation has its own rhythm, and that there will be moments when you can extract greater leverage or concessions. At the G20 Summit in London in 2009, I withheld the football scores – this was pre-smartphone – from the leaders of Spain and Brazil until they had signed off the language that Britain wanted in the agreement.

At other times in a negotiating process, you simply have to walk away. At the 2010 Copenhagen summit on climate change, we failed to get the agreement the world needed. But the failure of the talks helped to set up the success of the Paris Agreement six years later. It showed the price of failure. I often deploy this tactic when trying to get the kids to bed – no clean teeth, no story. I'm sure Bismarck did the same.

Finally, manage your emotions in the face of attacks. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George told his envoy to Palestine, Sir Ronald Storr, that "if either side stops complaining to me, you'll be dismissed.” If a deal were obvious, or straightforward to reach, no one would need to negotiate in the first place. Securing the ideal New Year leave dates might not make you popular with the rest of the office who end up covering for your fact finding visit to an Omani beach, but even Attilla the Hun recognised that “it is never wise to gain by battle what may be gained through bloodless negotiations”.

The greatest negotiators are those who can combine tact, resilience, judgement, tenacity and humour.

But one extra rule. Ignore rules one to six when necessary. No two peace processes are ever the same. What worked once may never work again. And if my track record in domestic negotiations is anything to go by, the rules of statecraft rarely work if applied to normal life. When it all fails and you're doing the washing up again, take comfort from the fact that the best negotiators are those that can make victory look like defeat. Or failing that, the unofficial motto of the United Nations: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall take flak from all sides."

Tom Fletcher is a former UK ambassador. He is an adviser at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy and the author of The Naked Diplomat: Power and Politics in the Digital Age.

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