March 04, 2008
One of the most challenging negotiations that I've been confronted with is a negotiation I had in the course of mediating between President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and his political opposition. At a time in the early 2000s, numerous international observers were afraid that Venezuela was going to trip into the kind of political violence that bedevils its neighbor Columbia.
Tensions were high. There were mass demonstrations, some violence, and a coup d'etat reversed. It was a very tough situation. At one point I had a nine o'clock appointment with the president at his place.So I'm waiting there -- ten o'clock, eleven o'clock. Finally at midnight, I'm ushered into the president's office thinking I was going in for a one-on-one, but I'm there with his entire cabinet behind him.
I'd been speaking to some of his ministers earlier and said so to Chavez. I congratulated him and said, "Mr President, it seems like things are improving a little between you and the political opposition. It seems like we're making some progress."
He took that as a cue to say, "What do you mean that we're making progress? Those SOBs!" He really got into a fury. "And you neutrals are being fooled blind; you're not seeing what they're doing." I was sitting there wondering, "What am I supposed to do?" Because he's been attacked, I'm feeling personally attacked. That was the situation.
So, what I did -- what I do in those situations -- was just say to myself, "Hey, stay cool; stay steady; and remember who you're here." I realized that if I became defensive and started replaying in kind, it wasn't going to serve my purpose; it wasn't going to advance the process. It wouldn't serve me in any way to get into a shouting match with the president.
So I waited, and I waited, and I didn't react. After an hour, suddenly, he calmed down. He turned to me and in a very resigned and somewhat exasperated voice said, "Ury, what should I do?"
That was my moment; I was ready. I had come with a proposal to say, "Hey, this is Christmas; let's have a cooling � off truce. Everyone, take some time out, relax, have a nice holiday, and get cool minds. Then we can focus on the problem."
At the end he was inviting me to go on a tour of Venezuela with him � very amicable.
What I learned from that is: one of the greatest powers in negotiation is the power of not reacting. Human beings are reaction machines. As Ambrose Bierce once said, "[Speak when you are] angry, [and] you will make the best speech you will ever regret."
We often do that, whether it's in the boardroom or at the office cooler. We lose it. And in negotiation in particular, where we're trying to advance our interests, the single biggest barrier isn't the other side; it turns out to be us. It's our own natural human reactions, which is why it's so important not to react.
I like to use a metaphor of going to the balcony. In other words, take a step back from the situation. Imagine you're negotiating on a stage, and part of your mind goes up to a mental balcony, someplace overlooking the stage, a place where you can get some perspective. You can see what's really going on; you can keep your eyes on the prize. Ask, "What are my real objectives in this negotiation?" Whether I'm negotiating with a tough client, or tough boss, or tough colleague, I ask, "What are my real objectives here, and how can I best advance them?"
Keep your eyes on the prize so you don't get mad. You don't get even, but you get what you want.
- When negotiating, especially when discussions are emotionally charged, the best strategy comes in not reacting.
- Focus on your own objectives and how you can best achieve them, and step back from the situation as needed to gain new perspective.
- The greatest obstacle is not the opposition; it is ourselves.
Leading By Example, Lessons Learned Series; by William Ury, co-author, Getting to Yes.
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