"Let's send Richardson," President Bill Clinton once said, according to Bill Richardson, a former Clinton cabinet member. "Bad people like him."
Richardson, who is also the former governor of New Mexico and a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, has carried out high-stakes diplomatic negotiations with dictators, thugs, and other slightly more peace-friendly world powers, is also the author of How to Sweet-Talk a Shark: Strategies and Stories From a Master Negotiator. In it, along with his co-author Kevin Bleyer, he spins yarns about his negotiating successes--and a couple of cringe-inducing failures--with two generations of North Korean leaders, Fidel Castro, and Saddam Hussein.
I decided to ask Richardson for some lessons he's learned from those years of high-stakes deal brokering that could be more broadly applicable to any boardroom or dining-room table. He shared four.
Only take a gamble if it's your very last option.
I made a mistake once and failed to secure the release of an American named Alan Gross in Cuba. Instead of playing it cool and trying again, I went to the press and publically blamed the Cubans. This was a big mistake, and I failed to get this hostage out. I think it's important to not lose your temper. If all else fails, you sometimes have to gamble and say, "OK, if we don't reach an agreement, respectfully, I must leave." Do that only if it's a last resort. If you threaten to walk out, do it with class and be prepared to follow through. You don't want to be seen as either weak or disrespectful.
Obsessively research your opponent.
Know everything about your adversary: What they stand for, what they think, who is the last person they talked to. Read up on the culture and the person. Know if the adversary is entering the negotiation with strength, or is negotiating from weakness. Then, at all times, stay focused, know where you want to end up.
Check your ego at the door.
Never insult your adversary culturally. By that I mean, don't appear to be in a hurry. Don't appear to be haughty. Don't appear to be the smartest guy in the room. It'll never work.
Give up your home-field advantage.
If the adversary wants to negotiate with me on his turf, I'll do it. You want him more comfortable, especially if he's going to be making concessions. Give up on that. You're not losing anything, you're not losing face, you're making the other side more comfortable. That's what it's all about, especially if you want the other side to make the concession.