Quick review: Be a master negotiator

Deepak Malhotra’s Negotiating The Impossible, provides an additional perspective by viewing negotiation through three parameters


Negotiating The Impossible—How To Break Deadlocks And Resolve Ugly Conflicts Without Money Or Muscle: By Deepak Malhotra, HarperCollins, 211 pages, Rs399.
Negotiating The Impossible—How To Break Deadlocks And Resolve Ugly Conflicts Without Money Or Muscle: By Deepak Malhotra, HarperCollins, 211 pages, Rs399.

Deepak Malhotra, professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School in the US, has written his second book on negotiation. The first book, Negotiation Genius—How To Overcome Obstacles And Achieve Brilliant Results At The Bargaining Table And Beyond, co-written with Max H. Bazerman, included numerous case studies and focused on some of the brass tacks of negotiation, like the psychology of negotiation, strategies of influence, and how to create value in negotiation. It drew on research in behavioural economics and psychology to present its negotiation advice.

His second book on negotiation, Negotiating The Impossible—How To Break Deadlocks And Resolve Ugly Conflicts Without Money Or Muscle,  is more of a spare version, good for supplementary reading. It provides an additional perspective by viewing negotiation through three parameters, which Prof. Malhotra calls “the crucial levers”: frame the issue, design a good process of negotiation, and empathize with the other side.

To illustrate these principles, Prof. Malhotra uses examples like the US-Iraq negotiations, as well as those between the players and owners of the National Football League.

“Think about the optics of the deal. It’s not just the substance of what you offer that matters, but how it looks to your negotiating partners and their audience. Think about how the other side will sell the deal, and frame the proposal with their audience in mind. Avoid negotiating over a single divisive issue,” Prof. Malhotra says in the section on leveraging the power of framing the idea.

He has one piece of advice for negotiators: When it comes to process, be the most prepared person in the room. Keep a low bar for progress on individual issues, but a high bar for approving the final agreement.

In the section on “Empathy”, he gives the example of US president John F. Kennedy and the way he handled the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, where the deployment of Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba threatened to start a world war. Amid all the tension—the Soviets refused to disarm the missiles—a US U2 surveillance plane that was flying over Cuba was shot down, presumably on Soviet orders. Kennedy could have interpreted this as a provocation for war. But he chose not to retaliate immediately; he waited to find out whether the shooting was the result of a miscalculation or a mistake by the Russians. This turned out to be the right decision; it was later established that the shooting down of the US plane hadn’t been ordered by Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev, and wasn’t the result of a deliberate decision to declare war. Kennedy prevented the crisis from escalating.

Prof. Malhotra’s final advice is to do an ICAP (interests, constraints, alternatives and perspectives) analysis of all the parties involved before you sit down for a negotiation. 

It’s all good advice, and practitioners of negotiation will benefit from reading these principles and the stories that illustrate them. Don’t look for any special secret for negotiating the impossible though—the stories, while varied and interesting enough, don’t hold those sort of momentous insights. But the succinct summing up at the end of each chapter is useful.

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