Lessons from a master negotiator


Even as Mandela largely succeeded in regulating his own emotions, his keen sense of empathy enabled him to identify ways to capitalise on the emotions of his counterparts and adversaries.

Some people learn to negotiate on the job, in a classroom or in a therapist’s office. In Nelson Mandela’s case, according to Bill Keller’s New York Times obituary of the legendary South African activist turned convict turned statesman, who died on December 5 last year, “prison taught him to be a master negotiator.”

Soon after his arrival at South Africa’s brutal Robben Island prison for a life sentence, Keller writes, Mandela “assumed a kind of command.” He befriended many of his white captors, whom he introduced to visitors as “my guard of honour.” He tried to persuade younger political inmates to analyse their opponents’ strengths rather than plunging headlong into conflict. During his 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela deeply absorbed the value of patience, discipline and empathy.

Mandela may have honed many of his negotiation skills in prison, but he was a born dealmaker. Those of us in realms less challenging than apartheid-era South Africa can learn from his beliefs, decisions and actions.

In the late 1940s Mandela became active in the African National Congress, a well-established South African political organisation dedicated to securing full citizenship for blacks. As he rose through the ranks and gained influence, Mandela began to question the ANC’s reliance on peaceful protest to make headway. Without vetting his views with ANC leadership, he publicly spoke out in favour of armed resistance, only to be censured for diverging from the organisation’s policy.

Decades later Mandela took a similar approach when making a much more fateful break with the ANC’s party line. In 1985, 23 years into his imprisonment, numerous signs — including international pressure, a devastating trade boycott and growing violence between protesters and the police — suggested that the apartheid regime was weakening.

The ANC had taken the stance that it would not negotiate with the South African government. Mandela himself had personally rejected the possibility of negotiation in numerous public statements, once saying, “Only free men can negotiate.” The government took a similarly hard line against negotiation with the ANC, believing that to do so would signal weakness.

Each side insisted that it would not negotiate unless the other made significant concessions beforehand. Given the entrenched stalemate, it was remarkable that Mandela decided to try to launch negotiations between the ANC and the government. Even more strikingly, he did so without any authority to speak on behalf of the ANC, which was run as a collective.

Leading from behind

Believing that his fellow ANC leaders would disagree with his decision, Mandela covertly sent a letter to Kobie Coetsee, South Africa’s minister of justice, in which he offered to meet secretly to discuss the possibility of negotiations. Coetsee eventually agreed, and the two men launched clandestine talks that laid the groundwork for a democratic, post-apartheid South Africa.

For most of us, secretly moving forward with a negotiation against the wishes of our superiors and colleagues would be a risky, even foolish move. Business negotiators typically must secure buy-in from others in their organisation before breaking from past practice.

For such contexts, however, Mandela — who was raised by a prominent tribal chief — offers another useful shepherding metaphor. As a result of the long hours he spent in childhood listening to the consensus-building conversations of the tribal council, Mandela observed that the chief “stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising they are being led from behind.”

This quotation suggests the value of lobbying others in support of your cause, then letting them make your argument to other reluctant parties. Mandela’s stealth overtures remind us that those who see clearly what others cannot may have a responsibility to use their powers of persuasion to win over naysayers – or to act without them when necessary.

One noteworthy quality of Mandela’s was his ability to negotiate calmly with his enemies at the same time that he was absorbed in a passionate, all-consuming struggle against them.

Even as Mandela largely succeeded in regulating his own emotions, his keen sense of empathy enabled him to identify ways to capitalise on the emotions of his counterparts and adversaries.

Emotional intelligence is likely to be a valuable skill for negotiators, allowing us to accurately read our counterparts’ emotions, manage our own feelings and successfully mediate conflict. To cultivate these skills, spend time listening to and observing your fellow negotiators, making note of their insecurities and grievances. Doing so should enable you to address their core concerns, which could have the effect of softening their positions on the issues that matter most to you.

As illustrated by his eventual willingness to negotiate with the apartheid government, Mandela was at heart a pragmatist rather than an ideologue. His decision to initiate negotiations from prison may serve as the most prominent example of his willingness to change his positions in the service of his greater goals.

Not negotiating with an enemy on moral grounds can be a legitimate decision. Because our moral judgments tend to be based on intuition, however, instead of on reason, they can be dangerous traps. When we take a hardline stance without thoroughly analysing the likely costs and benefits of negotiating, we risk allowing our principles to get in the way of the greater good.

Wise negotiators follow Mandela’s example and rationally consider whether or not to negotiate.

From Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School

© The New York

Times 2014

© 2014 Harvard University

 

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