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The High-Stakes Negotiation Secrets of Hillary Clinton

Clinton's account of the high-stakes negotiations on behalf of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng provides a blueprint for business leaders on how to handle tense talks.
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Negotiation skills are essential in both politics and business. Witness the ongoing supplier-seller fracas between Hachette and Amazon. Two parties need to work together on a deadline-driven accord. But each party also needs to fight for its fiscal interests and core beliefs. In addition, each party needs to monitor the public-relations fallout of its tactics.

In her new memoir, Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton recounts the State Department's tense negotiations with China on behalf of dissident Chen Guangcheng. The methods Clinton's team used offer a template for business leaders on the best way to manage high-stakes talks.

A requisite disclaimer: I'm by no means equating international diplomacy with boardroom staredowns. Nonetheless, Clinton's book provides an insider's glimpse of global negotiations know-how. Here are five quick takeaways from that know-how, lessons business negotiators can put to use in pursuit of their own accords and agreements: 

1. Propose a creative solution and do the legwork to make it feasible. For those of you not familiar with the story of Chen Guangcheng, here's a reductive, three-sentence backgrounder: In April, 2012, Chen, a blind, 40-year-old human rights activist, escaped from home arrest in China and contacted the US Embassy for protection. China wanted him back in their custody. Negotiations began. 

A creative solution came from the State Department's legal advisor, Harold Koh, formerly the dean of Yale Law School. Koh's idea was to allow Chen--who was already a self-taught lawyer--to study formally at a Chinese law school. Then, after two years, Chen could continue at an American law school.

The key piece here--for business negotiators--is that Koh, using his law school connections, took the step of securing a fellowship for Chen at NYU's law school. This allowed the State Department to present the Chen-to-law-school plan as practically a done deal, once China gave its approval. In other words, Koh and the other negotiators didn't just verbally toss out a creative solution as a possible point of discussion. They came to the table with the paperwork ready. They made it easier for China to say yes, no, or we'll think about it.

2. Allow the other party to vent. China was livid that the US did not immediately return Chen to their custody. Clinton describes the response of China's main negotiator, Cui Tiankai, when he heard the news: 

He launched into a 30-minute diatribe about Chinese sovereignty and dignity, growing louder and more impassioned as he went. We were undermining the relationship and insulting the Chinese people, and Chen was a coward, hiding behind American skirts. Over the following hours and days, our team endured five more negotiating sessions, all along the same lines....At one point Kurt [American negotiator Kurt Campbell] witnessed an intense argument between Cui and a senior security official, but he couldn't hear the details. After 10 minutes a frustrated Cui waved his colleague off. 

In a nutshell: There was a total of six tense sessions, filled with ad hominem insults and anger. For all of the frustration, the two parties kept talking. At no point did the insults lead to a decision to walk away.

3. Spare the other party from a public defeat. Recognize what's on the line if talks cease. The appeal of Koh's law-school solution was that it prevented embarrassment for China, notes Clinton. His plan would "get Chen out of the embassy, avoid the emotionally charged question of asylum, and provide a face-saving soution for the Chinese before the start of the summit," she writes.

The summit was the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the US and China. It was only weeks away. With major commerce on the line, both the US and China had a vested interest in an expedient solution for Chen. Koh's idea provided just that. 

Later on, the State Department made sure its communications were respectful to China's leaders. Rather than hailing Chen's release as a major victory, the US remained deferential in its press releases and in its public remarks at the summit. Likewise, there was no response to the sharp statements from China, which "denounced American interference in their internal affairs," writes Clinton. 

4. Offer multiple paths to achieve your proposed solution. Concede the points that don't affect the bigger picture. Once China agreed to the law-school plan, there remained the question of which Chinese law school Chen would initially attend. Campbell gave Cui a list of five or six possible universities to consider. "Cui scanned the list and exploded in anger," writes Clinton. "'There's no way he's going to East China Normal,' Cui roared. 'I will not share an alma mater with that man!'

"That meant we were getting somewhere," Clinton writes. 

The point here, for business negotiators, is to give your counterparts some choice in the matter, if it doesn't affect the bigger picture. For the State Department, it didn't really matter where in China Chen attended law school. But it ostensibly mattered to Cui and to China. So the State Department formed its list of schools, and then altogether conceded it as a point of conflict. 

5. Make sure you can deliver on your end of the solution. Prepare for the challenges of executing what you've agreed upon. Once China and the US agreed on the Chen-to-law-school solution, there remained the matter of getting Chen himself to sign off on it. Though Chen had previously agreed to the plan, he now had second thoughts. "He wanted to speak with his family and have them come to Beijing before making any final decisions," writes Clinton. 

This meant that the State Department had to go back to China, reopen negotiations, and seek permission for Chen's family to come to Beijing. China, as you might guess, wasn't happy about this development. But after another tense session--and with the summit looming--China agreed to let it happen.

When Chen left the embassy, his first stop was Chaoyang Hospital. His foot, which he broke during his initial escape from home arrest, was still healing. After seeing his wife in the hospital, Chen had more second thoughts about the law-school plan. "To Chen, the grand idea of staying in China and remaining relevant, despite the risks, may have started to seem less attractive once he was outside the protection of the embassy walls and with the loved ones he could potentially be endangering," writes Clinton. 

The public-relations fallout began. Protesters and politicians questioned if Clinton had done enough to keep Chen safe, especially after Chen called into a House committee meeting and said, on speakerphone, "I fear for my family's lives." Clinton then entered the negotiations herself. She urged her counterparts to refine the existing agreement, fast-forwarding Chen's path to NYU. On May 19, Chen and his family arrived in New York. 

The moral here is one that business leaders know well: Forming a plan is one thing; executing it is quite another. Chen, writes Clinton, turned out "to be unpredictable and quixotic, as formidable a negotiator as the Chinese leaders outside." In business terms, the lesson is to keep all your stakeholders in mind during negotiations. Even if those stakeholders do not have a seat at the table. 

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Jun 12, 2014




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