Book Excerpt: Negotiate This!: By Caring, But Not T-H-A-T Much

Every day, in countless ways, we communicate with others in attempts to influence their behavior. In this new book, Herb Cohen draws on several decades of unrivaled practical experience as he teaches you that negotiation is not a do-or-die gambit to bend others to your will-but a high-minded game to master, to enjoy, and to win. Read an excerpt here.

ISBN: 0446529737
Warner Books

Chapter 1
The Joy of Detached Involvement

The one human freedom that cannot be taken from you is the capacity to choose your attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way. – Viktor Frankl

1 – A Gaming Mechanism

Negotiation is the game of life. Whenever you attempt to reconcile differences, manage conflict, resolve disputes, establish or adjust relationships you are playing the negotiating game. Truly it is the lifeblood of relationships. While people accept the importance of this learned skill in diplomatic dealings and labor relations they sometimes fail to see the opportunities that exist for them to gain a better mastery in their everyday lives via negotiating know-how.

For all of us, life is a continuing process of trying to influence others, whether it be your boss, a client or customer, a landlord, a neighbor, a banker, a broker, a medical or legal professional, an insurance or utility company, a salesperson, a car dealer, an HMO, an IRS auditor, or even a family member. We seem forever absorbed in trying to get others to agree with us. Whatever the case or cause, whenever you communicate with an objective in mind, engaging in social exchange to affect someone’s demeanor or behavior, you are playing the negotiating game. Inevitably, your attitude and actions often have the potential to determine the distribution of available resources, the satisfaction of those involved, and even the nature of the relationship.

Please note that I refer to negotiating as a gaming mechanism or game, because if you see it in that light you will perform much better. Since a game is where you care—really care, but not t-h-a-t much.


Now why do I say that? Well, who is the worst person you negotiate for? Of course, I believe the answer is: yourself. That’s not only true in your case; I know that’s my own reality. Actually, to be completely candid with you, in the past three decades I have earned a lucrative living negotiating on behalf of others. Indeed, I try to have as my clients very wealthy entrepreneurs or large corporations with money to spend, who employ me to operate on their behalf in deal making. The way I am compensated is that I get a meager or modest percentage of an enormous deal. Would you believe that this formula works out well for my family and myself ? So I must be pretty good at doing that.

Yet, when I negotiate on behalf of myself it’s not a game anymore, it’s my life, my legacy. So the result is often plainly pathetic. Now why is this the case? Do you believe it is because I’m lacking in self-esteem? Let me assure you that this is not so. Really, I like me one heck of a lot. In fact if I could be more effective for myself and less effective for you I would prefer it that way. But in truth I am better for you. Why? ‘Cause I don’t even know you.

Naturally I care about you, but not t-h-a-t much. It’s that attitude that gives me perspective when working on your behalf. Indeed I suspect you already know that the best way to make a good deal is to convey to the other side that you are capable of living without the deal—that you have other options or alternatives. So as the “great negotiator” Kenny Rogers once said in a song lyric, “You got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em” and walk away. Succinctly put, the operative approach for success and satisfaction in all of life’s interpersonal exchanges is to really care—but not t-h-a-t much.

Let me further illustrate this concept. About twenty-five years ago I was retained by a Chicago executive to help him finalize an agreement with the French government. We flew out of John F. Kennedy Airport heading for Paris. We sat next to each other in first class. Apparently, for him this deal was a vital matter that would have a substantial impact on the bottom line of his business. I learned this on the way over, because he frequently turned to me and said, “You know, this is a large financial transaction and I’ve got a great deal at stake.” He must have used the same language about five times, so I eventually figured out that this was “a large financial transaction with a great deal at stake.” From all indications he was under stress and he repeatedly asked, “What’s our game plan?” In response, I found myself saying things like, “Well, we’ll get in there and see how it goes.” He kept shaking his head. “No,” he blurted out. “We need more structure—you know, detail, specificity, meat—pith.” At the time, never having heard the word “pith,” I was somewhat alarmed.

Unimpressed by my vague replies, he took the initiative. “Maybe we should open up by blitzing the French officials. You know, take them by surprise, red dog ’em. We could even send out a flanker, and when they follow the flanker, we blindside them.” It took me a while to realize that this man was speaking to me in an arcane, esoteric language. He was using American football terminology.

As you know, in any attempt to communicate with an objective in mind or any purposive social exchange, you should begin by determining the other party’s frame of reference. As young people used to say, “Where is this person coming from?” Clearly, my traveling companion’s paradigm was professional football.

“Okay, I got it,” was my response. “In this culture, we don’t want to appear overly aggressive or offensive, so at the outset we’ll go with a flex defense.” Surprisingly, he nodded like he understood this. Encouraged, I went on: “We’ll give up yardage but we won’t let them put any numbers up on the board.” Presumably, this satisfied him and the rest of the trip was uneventful.

The next day, we met with the French authorities and from all indications my client’s initial reservations appeared prescient. Right at the outset I made a substantial error. Note that I refer to my faux pas as an “error.” Though responsible for the misstep I select a suitable word to describe what happened. Thus when I bungle I always call it an “error,” because “To err is human and to forgive divine.” In contrast, when you mess up, that’s a “mistake,” which could well be the product of gross stupidity and sheer incompetence.

As a consequence of my miscalculation my client was in an untenable position, which unfortunately he realized. He was upset—but not I. Of course, I’m caring—but not t-h-a-t much, ’cause I’m getting paid by the day. Unquestionably, because of this attitude, things turned around the next day and we concluded the deal with my client doing twice as well as he expected.

I now returned home to my family feeling rather triumphant. Walking into my household I was expecting that wonderful greeting that I have been expecting for decades. Only this time I noticed the atmosphere was particularly strained. Approaching my significant other, my wife, I asked the obvious: “What’s wrong? What’s going on here?” Quickly I learned that in my absence the family had organized against me. In effect, I had my own little “Solidarity Movement” operating here. It was like a welcome to Gdansk.

Well, what’s the problem? Quickly I learned that they all wanted me to speak to our youngest child about cleaning up his room. To me this was trivial, as I try to concern myself with broader problems—like nuclear proliferation. (By all accounts the pubescent Amy Carter and I were the only people who worried about that issue.)

“Okay, let me give all of you another option. Get the kid to close his door.” They didn’t buy that. Successively they were on my back assaulting me with a verbal barrage: “Dad, things are growing in his room that have never been planted …Your son is a slob who takes after you …He’s corrupting the family chromosomes.” And then came the final kicker, “Forget all the stuff you’re involved in, Mr. World Traveler, this is the only heritage you’re leaving behind.”

Amid all this I became passionately involved with a twelve-year- old child. No longer was this a mere game. It was my life and my legacy. As it happened, I became so emotionally enmeshed with this kid and his siblings that I not only got out-negotiated but also humiliated in the process.

All this is to say that whenever a social interaction looms so large in your mind that you view it as a watershed event in Western Civilization, you’re in trouble. You’re caring too much and with that you lose the requisite detachment necessary for success.

There’s a prosaic saying that when a person is overcome with feelings, be it anger or desire, he or she “can’t see the forest for the trees.” Oddly, or maybe fittingly, when that happens you move in so close that you might even swear, “There is no tree, only a knothole right here.” In other words, what you must do is train yourself to step back, so you can see the pattern, relationships, and interconnection of things.

ITEM: In the fifth century B.C., the Chinese military and political strategist Sun Tzu commented about the wisdom of perspective. In essence he wrote that “during an engagement a leader should not be in the midst of his forces but a little distance apart. Otherwise, his outlook will be distorted and he will misjudge the situation as a whole.”

Earlier, I said that negotiating often involves the managing of conflict. At times, however, some conflicts that come your way need not be confronted but should be avoided. If you have some perspective you can see things beginning to develop and use your lead time to adopt a blueprint of avoidance. Another strategy that comes with distance is to diffuse or reconcile differences before they even come to a head. Finally, a third option is to confront the problem directly looking for alternate solutions that will provide for joint gain and build mutually beneficial relationships.

So, although negotiation is a game, it is best played as one of addition, not subtraction or exclusion. This means that we must often dampen our adversarial urge and drain some of the emotional content from life’s strategic interactions. Recognize that this encounter which seems so important right now in the long run will be no more than a blip on the radar screen of eternity or a walnut in the batter of your life.

Perhaps you are wondering whether the author of this book, someone with some negotiating savvy and experience, ever gets bested in business dealings. Interestingly enough I only have to recount an event that transpired last year to make the point.

As you may know, for at least three decades I have been on the lecture circuit, getting paid to speak on subjects ranging from international terrorism to professional selling to dispute resolution. When prospective clients want to use my services they either call a speaker’s bureau or sometimes my office. When they contact my office directly to work out the terms of the booking they never get to speak to me on that first call. There is, of course, a reason for that. You see, my speaking fees are astronomical and there’s no way I can honestly justify earning the kind of money that I do.

However, the people in my office who make the initial arrangements don’t have my compunctions. When you call, they care about booking the date, but not t-h-a-t much. Consequently, without batting an eye they throw out that astronomical number. Usually the fee we quote is immediately accepted without negotiations. Understandably, it’s due to our presentation. Consider, for example: “Here’s Herb’s standard fee. Now you would like his standard performance wouldn’t you?” The retort is almost always predictable: “And what does that include?” Our answer is always the same: “First and foremost a guarantee that he’ll show up. You would want that, wouldn’t you?” At this point the prospect is transformed into a client when they blurt out “Oh yes.” This occurs 90 percent of the time. In the case of the small minority, they occasionally become indignant and say something like “Forget it, I can get Henry Kissinger for less.” Given this scenario I don’t even know who these people are since I never work for them.

Which brings me to the phone call received this past year from a large information technology company in Silicon Valley, California. As the events were recounted to me, a female executive phoned to inquire about my fees for a specific conference to take place in San Francisco. To be sure, the dialogue followed a routine pattern. After discussing the length of the talk, the composition of the audience, and so on, there’s invariably an inquiry along the lines of, “What will this cost? How much is Herb’s remuneration?” or the standard rhyming couplet, “So what will the fee be?” At this juncture those in my office quoted the standard “astronomical fee” knowing that on occasion this might produce a contentious reaction, at least from that unknown 10 percent.

However, the woman executive on the other end of the line went against the norm and our expectations. What she did was creative, differentiating herself and her conference from all others. Alas, she was applying the theory that “A nose that can hear is worth two that can smell.” While I’m not exactly sure what that means, nonetheless I know it works.

Instead of saying “How much does he want?” or “What do we have to pay?” she inquired softly, “So what would Herb’s honorarium be?” Our initial reaction was, “Honorarium? What the hell is that?” Being somewhat familiar with Latin I know that when you translate it into English it means “You’re getting less.” And the reason I know that, is when people are offering me more honor that’s going to leave over less “arium.” Fortunately, the people in our office don’t know Latin so they came back with the standard astronomical fee.

The other side’s rejoinder was not emotional, nothing like, “Who does he think he is? Nobody merits that!” Rather she said, “We know he’s worth what you’re asking. What’s more, our executive VP heard him speak previously and said his value is at least twice that amount. And if we had that kind of money it would indeed be our privilege, our pleasure, and our honor to offer him that. But regrettably this is all we have in our budget.” Did that work? Well, six months later I was on stage at the San Francisco Sheraton fulfilling my commitment.

ITEM: In the golden age of television, Jackie Gleason’s show was one of CBS’s highest rated programs. William Paley, the network’s CEO, was anxious to re-sign him, only Gleason wanted to be paid a then unheard of sum of $11 million a year. During the final bargaining session, the Great One, who was hungover, fell asleep during the argument over money. Paley, observing his condition, said, “Okay, if that’s his attitude [caring but not t-h-a-t much], give him what he wants.”

2 – Voluntary Decision Making

Fundamentally, what negotiating is all about is voluntary decision making. Unlike the great growth industry of our time—litigation—negotiating in the final analysis requires two parties to say “yes.” The difficulty, however, is that at least one of these entities starts out by saying “no,” or at best they are not sure or profess reluctance to say “yes.” So your basic task as a negotiator is to help move someone from “no” to “yes” or from reluctance to commitment.

Occasionally I am asked, “Herb, in your career have you ever encountered a situation where two people are saying ?yes’ from the outset and they call you in?” And the answer to that question is “No!” Why would they call me?

You don’t have two people sitting around a table in Dallas and one says to the other, “I think we would be willing to pay $8 million for your business.” And the other remarks, “I concur, I think we’ve got a deal here. Now let’s give this guy Cohen a call on the East Coast, bring him out so we can give him a portion of the sale price.” Nope, I don’t get those calls. I don’t know who does, but it’s not me.

Let me tell you when I get involved. Those two people are meeting in Dallas and the first party opens with the same proffer of $8 million. However, the response is drastically different. “Are you kidding!” the second guy retorts. “I’m offended by that chintzy, niggling, paltry, and pitiful offer, which I regard as personally insulting. Do you know my grandfather started this company, which by any measure is worth $80 million? Hey, the only way I might even be forced to respond,” he continues, “is if you threaten to rip the tongue from the roof of my mouth. If you threaten to tear the eyeballs from my skull. If you threaten to maim, murder, and destroy my family, whom I love dearly, and that were a viable threat. Only then might I consider it. But as far as you’re concerned right now, shove it.”

Not long after, the person who was the recipient of that tirade may call my office. Interestingly, he presents the problem in a matter-of-fact manner. “We have some differences here in Dallas about perceptions. Perhaps Herb might come out and serve as a catalyst to facilitate things.” By my reckoning I have made too many of these hopeless journeys.

Nevertheless, when I arrive at the DFW Airport, as I stride off the plane to be welcomed by the parties, I do not say, “Hi there, here I am, hotshot negotiator from the East ready to take command.” Indeed to be honest with you the picture on this book’s jacket is about as good as I ever look. Check out that photo and you know right away that I’m not a big believer in “dressing for success.” Never have I been in a situation where people are saying “no,” “fuhgeddaboudit,” or “never,” when suddenly I appear on the scene, immaculately and fashionably attired. Do you believe they look up and say, “Hey I love the way that guy’s put together. Wow, that matching ensemble, the power tie, the cut and fabric of his garment. Gee, I was going to say ?no’ but based on his clothing, make that ?yes.’ ” The opposite may actually be true. Somehow if you look too good they expect you to make concessions. So my strategy in negotiations is generally to make the other side feel superior to me. In so many instances you have to work so very hard but nevertheless it pays off.

3 – An Other Worldly Undertaking

Whenever you face off with someone in this process of voluntary decision making you’re in an association with a dissimilar organism or a symbiotic relationship. By that I mean there are both elements of cooperation and competition involved—shared interests and issues in conflict. What is clear is that without commonality there is no reason to try for a resolution of the problem. So too, without discord there is nothing to negotiate about. Therefore, whenever someone says, “All right, I’ll meet with you, but not to discuss this matter or God forbid to negotiate,” you should regard that as an opening bargaining position. Unless you are exceptionally attractive or a professional entertainer, why are they spending their valuable time in your company? Evidently, they either recognize some commonality that exists or realize that an outright rejection of the meeting has the potential of producing detrimental consequences for them.

Generally what appears to take place in the customary negotiating encounter is that the parties first verbalize contradictory demands and then try to move toward agreement by concession making or possibly a search for new alternatives. This may suggest that the game may be sufficiently superficial to lend itself to a mathematical solution. Yet the truth is that what appears to be happening on the surface can be misleading. Implicit but often neglected is that the parties involved in this dynamic process through the trial and error of reciprocal communications are attempting to satisfy their needs.

There’s the rub. We are dealing with sentient beings, unique complex creatures who are both malleable and resilient and who are capable of changing their minds but only if given enough acceptable reasons, time, and social support. As a matter of fact, a human being is motivated by his or her individual interests, but their “rational decision making” normally embodies some degree of intuition, emotion, habituation, and arbitrariness.

So when we run into conduct that deviates from our expectations, underlying it are experiences and a system of values and beliefs that we do not understand. This is true because all behavior, no matter how bizarre, makes sense from the standpoint of the actor. In this regard we could easily be talking about a spiteful ex-spouse, disobedient child, problematic in-law, revengeful former associate, or a callous bureaucrat.

Each of us is so bound by our own parochial assumptions, behaviors, and experiences that we frequently do not recognize differences. This is so even when we are in the midst of another culture. In short, you and I do not see things as they are. We see things as we are. We are truly captives of the pictures in our brain. Hearing words and observing behavior we construct a map only to learn later that our map does not depict the actual terrain. The point is this: Although automatic stereotyped behavior is prevalent and perhaps even convenient in a complicated and chaotic world, an individual human being defies classification. Each person is unique—one of a kind. Think of it this way: If there was anyone here exactly like you, there’d be no reason for you to be here.

All of which should suggest that if you want to be effective in selling your ideas, persuading others, or exercising leadership, you must start out as other-directed. That is to say: It is important that you see any purposive interaction as an opportunity to acquire information about the other side’s beliefs, motives, attitudes, and values. All this means is that you want to see yourself as “other worldly.”

Which brings me to one of the first full-time jobs I had while an undergraduate student. It was during the Korean War and there was a recession in the United States. Only in those days, they never told you that the economy was in the tank. When you couldn’t find a job you thought, “What’s wrong with me?” This fact was underscored when I ended up working as a commission salesman for a national life insurance company.

As I recall, the training program lasted three days and we were told to “dress to impress,” display “zeal for the deal,” and take control of the prospect by talking and telling. According to our instructor, selling was a high-pressure ritual dance of courtship, an assertive seduction pure and simple. When asked about listening to the customer he gave us the impression that silence on our part was a symptom of muted imbecility.

Surrounded by signs that read, “There Is Only One Thing in Life More Important Than a Little Money and That’s a Lot of Money,” we were encouraged to chant in unison, “I feel great, I want money.” Despite our encyclopedic ignorance of our company’s products and services, we were advised to use hyperbole as part of our stock-in-trade and when answering questions to remember that “a lie is not a lie if the truth is not known.” (Parenthetically, this was a novel ethical formulation that came to mind years later when Marion Barry, the mayor of Washington, D.C., said “There are two kinds of truths: real truths and made-up truths.”)

Our guiding principle was to control the discussion with an opening sales pitch, to be followed by twenty-two surefire ways of overcoming objections, and finally eighteen guaranteed techniques to close the deal. As young and inexperienced as I was at the time, even I realized that there was less here than met the eye.

How long did I last in this company? Very much like a dead fish, after about five days the smell got to me. Although this took place over forty years ago, there is still a misguided minority who believe that persuasion and selling is about erudition, audacity, appearance, and taking charge.

4 – New Communication Approaches

Quite to the contrary, if you want to impact favorably on the other side’s decision making, you’ve got to be other-directed, understanding their values, beliefs, experience, and mind-set. Businesspeople call this being “customer- or client-focused.” The same is true in Arthur Miller’s play The Price, where the octogenarian appraiser Gregory Solomon explains, “If you don’t understand the viewpoint, you don’t understand the price.”

Beyond a doubt all human beings perceive, discover, and create their realities according to the maps or paradigms they have in their minds. Hence it is natural to ascribe our beliefs, values, concerns, and aspirations to those with whom we negotiate. But we must guard against this inclination. Such “mirror imaging” or projection on our part will only produce discomfort and discord. Recognizing this problem, common sense might tell us that when engaged in any attempt to influence behavior we must start out asking more questions than giving answers and listening more than talking. Needless to say, too many people cannot resist the urge to immediately inaugurate the discourse with a generic sales pitch that extols the technical features of their services, products, ideas, or proposals. Instead, viewing yourself as a problem solver, you should try to elicit from the other party their underlying concerns, interests, preferences, and needs.

Given this approach the basic formula works like this: First off, you should begin by asking questions even if you think you know the answers. Not only listen to what they are saying, but convey that you are engaged in active listening. How do you do this? Well, when they speak, look at them, and smile and nod when it’s appropriate. Do not mask your reactions with a poker face, even if you’ve heard it all before. Try to display empathy and understanding, since people want to know that you truly care about their situation.

Second, write down what they are saying. Often people ask, “But what if their comments are gibberish, asinine, and moronic?” To which I say, “In that case it’s even more important for you to record their claptrap; you may be the only person who has ever taken them seriously.” Remember, people want to be in a relationship with those who respect their point of view.

Third, while taking notes, pause occasionally to read back to them what you have written. In all the years I have been doing this, never once has the other side said, “Gee you got that perfectly.” Usually their reaction is, “You left something out” or, “I believe you mischaracterized that.” At this point, I willingly change what I have, conforming to their wishes so that we may establish a consensus of their concerns.

Fourth, I allow them to tell their story in their own way, which means that they sometimes digress and meander. Never do I interrupt to keep them on track, because I know that ultimately their willingness to say “yes” will not be based only on facts, hard evidence, and rational thinking. Certainly, decision making will also be affected by gut instincts, comfort level, emotions, feelings, predilections, learning ability, risk tolerance, pride, past experiences, and perceived consequences. Make no mistake: Persuasion is more complicated than it may look at first blush.

Fifth, although opinionated and judgmental to some extent, I try to control my words and reactions. Consequently, even if I disagree strongly with what’s been said, I qualify my objections by saying, “I think I understand your position, but from my narrow perspective, limited as it may be, I see it this way …”

Finally, I never spend any time arguing or debating with people. I don’t show them where they are wrong, foolish, stupid, or misinformed. Even if I might overcome their arguments and prevail, such a victory would prove self-defeating inasmuch as my potential partner may be thinking, “Do I want to enter this relationship where I regularly meet with him in the future for further humiliation?” It would take a strange person to willingly acquiesce to such an arrangement.

Reduced to essentials, you want to always see yourself as a problem solver, someone with very sensitive antennae who is probing deeper and listening louder to acquire information. This will help you overcome the potential barriers to gaining agreement and making a deal. Here’s a rule of thumb: See every negotiation, whether it’s with your child or a business transaction, as a cross-cultural encounter where you start out sensitive to a differing perspective. Consequently, gather intelligence with the attitude of knowing that you don’t know because individuals not only reveal but also conceal information.

5 – Applying Conscious Inattention

Let’s now consider two world headline dramas where using negotiating savvy I attempted to influence the course of events. In retrospect these efforts did not produce national acclaim nor was my reputation especially enhanced. But you can judge for yourself.

The Seizure of the Japanese Embassy in Lima, Peru, in December 1996

On the week before Christmas in December 1996 over five hundred members of Peru’s elite had gathered at the Japanese embassy to celebrate the birthday of Emperor Akihito. Among the guests were Supreme Court justices, ministers, generals of the National Police, diplomats, and business executives. While they were sipping cocktails and swallowing sushi an explosion shattered the surrounding wall and fourteen masked men and women (some of them teenagers) started firing their weapons and announcing, “We are the Tupac Amaru and you are our hostages.” The Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement was a group that espoused political violence and had as its mission the establishment of a Marxist regime. It had gotten its name from the last emperor of the Incas, who was executed by the Spanish in 1572.

That’s what I knew about this situation until I received a phone call to come to the White House a few days after the occurrence. Since I was one of those involved in the FBI’s Hostage Negotiating Program in Quantico, Virginia, and was constantly warning our government about the scourge of international terrorism, I was looking forward to a long meeting with the President where I would share my thoughts and philosophy.

Upon arriving I met with a national security expert who gave me a concise review of the situation and asked whether I would be willing to go to Peru to afford President Alberto Fujimori the benefit of my experience. Answering affirmatively, I was putting away my pad when the door to the briefing room opened partially.

Looking up I noticed the head of President William Jefferson Clinton popping in. It was just his head, not his body. To this date, I have never seen his body in person—only his head. So don’t ask me anything about his body ’cause I’m not acquainted with it. However, I do know the head and it spoke to me. “Good luck, Herb,” it said, and, “Remember, this matter involves plausible deniability.” Which after translation into English means, “When you screw this up, we don’t know who you are.” So it was with this vote of confidence that I was on my way to Lima, Peru.

When the plane landed, I didn’t even go through customs but into a large limousine that took me to the Presidential Palace, where I was greeted by President Fujimori. He shook my hand, offered me a cup of tepid tea and a plate on which rested one cracker. At the time I remember looking for something to put on the cracker; which tells you a lot about my personal needs and priorities. While I gazed about, the President excused himself saying, “I’m not involved in the details of this, but the military is.” As if on cue the door swung open and three army generals strode in, marching in lock step. They were wearing uniforms and caps with fruit salad on the beaks. Down their uniforms they had an abundance of service ribbons, and medals were around their necks. Noticing their appearance I remember thinking, “Did I miss a big war down here? Because I’ve got to be in the presence of some of the world’s bravest people.”

At the outset, following the dictates of my charge from the White House, I began to detail my credentials as I shared my experiences with the generals. Looking back now, I must have been talking one helluva lot, because I soon realized that they were staring at the ceiling. The only time I paused was when the general with the most decorations held up his hand and said, “You want to know about hostage negotiations? I’ll tell you what I’ve been through. I came from a small town, Alca. Once a nine-year-old boy took a dog that didn’t belong to him and ran into a wooden shack. And do you know what we did? We surrounded the shack and counted to ten for him to come out.” Although thinking to myself that this culture is slower because in America we do “one-two-three,” I leaned forward and asked, “What happened next?” Shrugging, he replied, “We burned down the shack.” Somewhat bewildered, I inquired, “What happened to the boy?” He answered indifferently, “The dog jumped out and ran free.”

Was he just putting me on or was this a metaphorical story to communicate how they deal with hostage takers? At the time I remember thinking that just spending time with these guys would cause the loss of brain tissue and a precipitous drop of my IQ.

In hindsight I realize that my problem was that I had forgotten the advice that I gave you previously about questioning rather than telling. I had put myself in the role of “gringo expert” talking down to the common people. Conspicuously absent up to that point in my demeanor was any sense of humility and humanity.

Recognizing that I was losing credibility, I changed course and began to focus on them: their families, their travels, their tastes, and their lives. In short, to stop the skid I let go of the wheel.

Surprisingly after a time, our relationship changed and the generals gradually revealed what was going on. From them I learned that President Fujimori was infuriated by the takeover. Not only was this a humiliation for him and his government, but also his mother, sister, and brother were among the hostages. As a result, they had already started digging a rescue tunnel and preparing 150 commandos for an imminent attack. In addition, the President, who was dedicated to eradicating terrorism, wanted this to end forcibly by Christmas, as he would not negotiate with “this band of outlaws” under any circumstances.

Eventually I was able to get the generals to understand and to agree that time was in our favor if we wanted to safeguard the lives of the civilians. Respecting Fujimori’s wishes that there be no formal negotiations, a Commission of Guarantors (consisting of the head of the Red Cross, the Canadian ambassador, and a respected Peruvian archbishop) was formed to engage in “preliminary conversations” with the hostage takers. It was through these contacts and the relationships that developed between the captors and their captives that a great number of hostages gained their freedom, culminating with the release of 225 as a “goodwill gesture” just before Christmas.

When I left Lima fewer than one hundred hostages were still being held and the crisis had calmed considerably. Both sides had reduced their demands and they had settled into a contest of wills, playing to audiences at home and abroad. Significantly, the Peruvian government was using the tunnel excavations as a means of gathering intelligence and were willing to be patient “even if it took three months.” Perhaps more telling was that Nestor Cerpa Cartolini, commander of the operation, was starting to worry about his image and did not want to be compared to the more violent Shining Path terrorist group.

The denouement, which is still somewhat controversial, came after a 126-day siege. While the rebels were playing indoor soccer without their shirts and weapons, they were surprised by a massive commando onslaught. Making use of the intelligence that was collected over time, the security forces were able to safeguard the lives of almost all of the remaining hostages. The one exception was a businessman who sustained a heart attack during the assault and died on the way to the hospital. In essence, it was the passage of time, which allowed them to gather information, that saved the day for the remaining captives.

Although many who were directly affected by these events have melancholy memories, on occasion when I think back to my visit to the Presidential Palace I remember Edward R. Murrow’s dictum: “The obscure we see eventually, the completely apparent may take longer.” But godfather Michael Corleone may have been more to the point when he said, “The one thing I learned from Pop was to try to think as people around you think.”

The Iranian Hostage Crisis – November 1979

Doubtlessly many of the West’s difficulties with the Muslim world had at their genesis, or were at least exacerbated by, the Ayatollah Khomeini, the godfather of hate directed at America. Indeed, the handwritten words left behind by Mohammed Atta, the leader of the kamikaze nineteen that gave us the atrocity of September 11, 2001, are almost identical with the instructions Khomeini furnished to the thousands of children who were given the “keys to paradise” before exploding themselves on landmines during the Iran-Iraq War.

You may recall that this problem was first brought forcibly to our attention when a multitude of Iranian students seized the American embassy in Teheran in November 1979 and took fifty-two diplomats hostage. Despite the provocation of this Persian version of Dog Day Afternoon, President Jimmy Carter responded with admirable initial restraint and patience. But then, from my scape we seemed to engage in mirror imaging—applying our standards and values to the muddle and mobocracy that was developing in Iran. We publicly observed that the holding of our citizens was a violation of international law and a breach of diplomatic tradition. Also, President Carter informed us that he was praying for the hostages morning and night. And, oh yes, embarking upon the “Rose Garden Strategy,” he would not actively campaign against Senator Ted Kennedy in the Democratic presidential primary. As might be expected, despite all the media fanfare and public outrage, the hostages remained.

The upshot was that I ultimately met with President Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in mid-December 1979 to discuss observations on how to influence the behavior of the Iranian mullahs.

Presumably what brought this about was my experience, which seemed especially apropos for the crisis. Formerly, I mentioned that I worked with the FBI and was knowledgeable about hostage negotiations. But there was more: To begin with I had spent considerable time in Iran involved in commercial dealings. Second, I was a student of Islam and Shi’ism. Third, I knew a great deal about Persian history and culture. Last of all, when I was with the United States army in West Germany, I had met Ayatollah Behesti, then an adviser to Iranian students, but now the leader of the Islamic Republican Party in Iran. Based upon this background, I saw my task as explaining to the Carter administration how the mullahs viewed this situation. Our purpose I thought should be to get into their world and furnish them with incentives, both positive and negative, to gain the freedom of our citizens.

When the meeting began I started to explain how our adversaries come from a bargaining culture, which is different from ours. At the outset, I remember saying something along these lines: “How do Americans feel about negotiating? We don’t even like the word, calling it haggling or chiseling. My own wife has even said to me on many occasions, ?I do not lie for money.’ Of course, the implication is that I do. But in Iran everything is bargained for.

“Think of your own experience. Have you ever purchased a Persian rug retail? Even if you wanted to, they wouldn’t let you. It would be a cultural sin.

“From their bargaining mind-set the mullahs see this as a buy-sell transaction.” I continued, “They have fifty-three hot rugs for sale (one was later released) and are trying to obtain as much as they can for their illegally obtained merchandise. So when President Carter walks into the rug sellers’ bazaar and tells the prospective seller how much he wants and needs the merchandise, the price is not going down. In fact, this may even raise the ante.

“What’s happening is that by the behavior of the administration and our massive media coverage we are creating more demand for the rugs. Since the supply is limited, the cost is going up. So, quite unintentionally we are prolonging the captivity of the hostages.”

At this point the President cut in: “Herb, I don’t think you understand. You, myself, and the mullahs, we’re all from the same Abrahamic tradition.” When I first heard that I didn’t even know what he was talking about. But then I sort of figured it out and it struck me that the President and I may have been from that religious tradition, but not the mullahs.

Resisting the inclination to get sidetracked, I continued. “Okay, let’s look at Americans. What is the largest single purchase we make in our lives?” Without waiting for the answer I blurted out, “Yes, it’s a residential home. Now even if that prospective house is in a tract area, a development where all the homes look alike, how do we know what to pay?”

Again acting as if this was a rhetorical question I moved on. “Indubitably we look for the big sign in the sky. You know the one that’s 150 feet up there that says in big block numbers $179,226. Yup, that’s what we’re paying, the same as everyone else, what it says on that sign. So what if we’re getting ripped off at that price? We don’t care, ’cause everyone’s getting screwed at that price. Hey that’s the American way, equality of screwing across the board.”

Undeterred by the apparent lack of enthusiasm for my presentation I never paused. “And surely when we make this purchase we are going to do it quick. You know, fast. Because in our culture, time is money, so it’s in and out.

“Meanwhile how about the Iranian mullahs? Well, first of all they will bargain everything. From their experience, you can negotiate anything. Furthermore, if you’re a mullah, by dint of your occupation you’re unemployed. Other than your obligatory prayers five times a day, the remainder of your activities are spent looking to kill time. So, we are coming from a different place.”

President Carter interjected, “I don’t think you understand the Ayatollah, Herb,” he went on. “By all reports he’s not like you and me. He’s a martyr. He wants to die. Chhooomayne doesn’t care about his own life.” The President always strung out the name, prolonging the CH sound as if clearing his throat. It was like he knew Farsi and I didn’t.

Shaking my head, I remarked, “A martyr, not exactly. How old is Khomeini?” The President, who had an exceptional grasp of details, responded, “Eighty-six years and eight months.”

“Okay,” I said, “that proves it. How can you have an eighty-six-year-old martyr? On the face of it the life expectancy of a martyr is probably 19.2 years. Certainly when you get into your twenties or thirties you need another career.”

The inevitable result was that when I returned home from meetings like this in Washington, I was generally pessimistic, maybe even depressed. Walking into my household I would be greeted by my wife, Ellen, who is an upbeat, optimistic person. She’d say with a big smile, “Hey, how’d it go?” At the time I remember saying, “Do we have any United States Savings Bonds? Well …sell!”

And there you have it: Fortunately President Jimmy Carter brought the fifty-two Americans safely back from captivity. Unfortunately it took 444 days to achieve the result.

After the White House meeting, I continued to work with the administration attempting to obtain the release of our diplomats. In the subsequent months I wrote a number of memorandums and frequently met with members of the State Department and National Security Council, but all to no avail. Of these meetings, it cannot even be said that we were ships that passed in the night. I don’t even think we were sailing in the same waters. For whatever reason I could not get the decision makers to understand the mentality and mind-set of the Iranian mullahs.

Of course, what these criminals were doing was in violation of international law, but considering their objectives, frame of reference, and mental set, their behavior made sense to them and should have been predictable to us. Almost without exception you don’t change people’s behavior through rhetoric but only by altering their ways of looking at things. This means that if we wanted to facilitate the release, we should have had a coherent action strategy that made the Ayatollah realize that it was not in his interest to allow the status quo to continue. In other words, in the cost-benefit calculus of our adversary, the disadvantages of retaining the hostages would far outweigh the benefits of keeping them.

But instead of getting into the head of the ruling mullahs and being other worldly, we were invariably looking for a quick fix. This being the Middle East, the magic potion was usually someone who we thought knew someone who knew someone. That in turn led to Teheran visits by Ramsey Clark, Yasser Arafat, Kurt Waldheim, and even cleric Valerian Cappuci. As you doubtlessly know, they all failed.

After about three months of frustrating trips to our nation’s capital, I returned to earning a living. Thereafter, much to my amazement, I was contacted by Republican party stalwarts who were concerned that a Jimmy Carter “October Surprise” would alter the presidential election’s outcome in the final weeks. Ultimately, I met with Governor Reagan’s campaign manager, William Casey, and finally the candidate himself at a home he was renting in Virginia. Before even doing this I had one major concern and condition, and that was that the plight of the hostages not be introduced into the political campaign. Once this was agreed upon, I gave Governor Reagan my viewpoint on the situation, much of which was memorialized in a confidential memorandum sent to him on October 25, 1980. (The appendix of this book contains this document along with the Jack Anderson syndicated column of February 12, 1981, which refers to it. Presumably, after the presidential inauguration in January 1981, this writing was given to the media. It’s worth reading, because using the approach discussed I actually predicted the date that the fifty-two hostages would gain their freedom.)

In the intervening years, I have been asked numerous times, “How were you able to analyze this matter and foretell the outcome with such certainty?” My best answer is that, unlike others whose intellect and intelligence were superior, I didn’t have a career or reputation invested in this crisis. And I was less inhibited by a desire for acceptance or fear of disapproval. Not knowing any of those held captive, my vision wasn’t obscured by emotion. Most significant perhaps was that as an outsider I was able to see what more accustomed eyes overlooked—to observe in an unhabitual way.

This applies to you as a negotiator. While in the midst of fervent discussion and emotive people, you must try to remain aloof from the turmoil, so as to be able to see the unfolding pattern. Imagine if you would, that at the same time you are participating, you are also above the fray, listening with a third ear and observing with a third eye, much like an out-of-body experience.

What you are striving for is the perspective of an outsider. This will enable you to care, but not t-h-a-t much. What seems certain to me is that satisfaction in life is often best achieved by finding the proper balance between effort and relaxation. In the final analysis it’s not what happens but your view of what happens that counts. For what you and I see is often determined by what we already believe and think we know. Surely we don’t see with our eyes but with our brain. And to further complicate what we call “objective reality” may be our relative position in space and time. Conceivably, that’s why in Antarctica the temperature at which water freezes is called the “melting point.”

Picture it this way: Effective negotiating requires balance. That means everything in moderation …including moderation. You want to care but not t-h-a-t much, just as you want to trust, but not t-h-a-t much.

It is in this sense that Islam’s Hadith, which are the sayings and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, declares, “Trust in Allah, but always tie up your camel.”


  • Whenever you engage in any purposive social exchange or negotiation, detach yourself emotionally to gain perspective, so you can see the pattern, relationships, and interconnection of things.

  • To be effective in influencing behavior, start out by trying to acquire information about your counterpart’s beliefs, motives, values, and underlying needs.

  • Always view yourself as a problem solver, searching for creative alternatives that can satisfy both sides’ real concerns and interests.

  • Since all behavior makes sense from the standpoint of the actor, attempt to see the problem through their eyes and experiences.

  • In dealing with avowed opponents, realize that getting them to change is in direct ratio to their pain threshold. Behavior won’t be altered until they believe that the danger of intransigence outweighs the cost of accommodation.

  • When we care too much our adrenaline starts flowing, causing us to become doped up and dumbed down.

  • Even when subjected to irrational discourse, emotional diatribes, or the threat of an impasse, strive for a balanced attitude of caring, but not t-h-a-t much.

Copyright © 2003 by Herb Cohen

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