Negotiator-in-Chief

Thursday, 16 October 2008 19:00 Jim Camp Editorial Dept - Philosophy
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In a negotiation, your job is not to be liked. It is to be respected and effective. In a political debate, your job is to be both liked and respected. That changes the dynamics of negotiation as it should be practiced and the third debate between the presidential candidates was an excellent opportunity to assess their ability to negotiate.

As someone who has authored two books on negotiation and who coaches clients all over the world on how to negotiate effectively, I watched the debates from a different perspective than most viewers. I will leave the merit of their respective political positions aside and briefly discuss why the debates were critical indicators of how either man might function as President.


A President must fulfill many functions, but near the top of the list has to be as an effective negotiator among the many political, economic, military, and social interests competing for a priority. A President has to constantly demonstrate effective communication skills and leadership.

In a business negotiation, a valid mission and purpose is the key to success. One must never go into a negotiation without a clear agenda and goals. Among those goals is the need to work to manage your behavior. Topmost among negotiation skills is to avoid appearing to be needy.

 


Sen. Barack Obama is a master and well trained in working to manage his behavior. He is the essence of “cool.” He never appears to be rattled and only rarely reveals anything close to anger. He is blessed with a broad, appealing smile. Sen. John McCain has his advantages as well. Though much is made of it, his age is a traditional indicator of experience and wisdom. He is a genuine war hero. There is considerable irony in the fact that Sen. McCain is known for both his bipartisanship and his temper.

In a negotiation, the personality and character of both parties play an important role. In selecting a President, these factors are in play as well. I advise clients that you should not save an adversary from a misstep or error of judgment, but at the same time you must let an adversary save face.

One attribute those who viewed the debates had to parse was Sen. McCain’s commitment to be aggressive in presenting his positions and challenging Sen. Obama while at the same time working to express his personal respect for him. Something he failed to do in the second debate when he referred to Sen. Obama as, “that guy over there.” As such, Sen. McCain demonstrated an effort to improve his negotiating skills.

By contrast, Sen. Obama displayed excellent negotiating skills, deflecting criticism of his past associations, dismissing racial overtones, and threats on his life. Sen. Obama clearly won points for his comfortable manner in negotiations.

It is worth noting that the first two debates were widely regarded as “boring”, while the third, presumably the “closer”, was deemed more animated and more interesting. Observers with credentials in political science generally conceded that Sen. McCain did better this time around, but Sen. Obama won by creating a vision of a new future.

In my book, “Start with No”, I teach the value of being able to say no during a negotiation as a way to move it along and to stay on track to achieve one’s own objectives. Sen. McCain said “no” throughout the third debate, as did Sen. Obama. Both moved the debate forward with their decisions to reject different assertions.

If I had a negotiator’s criticism of Sen. McCain it is his tendency to smile inappropriately and his use of the sound bite “my friends.” It unfortunately creates the vision of someone being disingenuous. In the “smile contest”, Sen. Obama is particularly blessed.

If I had to grade both candidates as negotiators, I would be inclined to give Sen. Obama higher grades and I think this is due to his outstanding academic record at Harvard Law and his work teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School for 10 years.

In all negotiations, their end is determined by both parties to it. This negotiation—the election—will be over on November 4 and its outcome will be determined by the voters. After that, an entirely new negotiation begins and lasts for four years of the new President’s term.

Image Courtesy of Joel Barbee - NFP Editorial Cartoonist



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