Whether or not the U.S. Congress actually approves the recent nuclear deal with Iran — which is far from a certainty — there’s a lot to be learned from the recent negotiations in Vienna. The fact that Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and their respective teams managed to arrive at any kind of deal is a testament to extraordinary negotiation strategies at work. Which means even those of us negotiating deals with lower stakes than global nuclear proliferation should watch closely and learn all we can. Herewith, four takeaways from the recent colloquy.
1. Location Matters.
The physical location of a negotiation can actually determine its outcome. That these final round of discussions took place in Vienna was a deliberate choice — geographically between Washington and Tehran, and home to the (symbolically) impartial International Atomic Energy Agency. The Coburg Palace was another smart choice, as it allowed the negotiating teams to keep a safe distance from journalists, preventing the kind of leaks and casual asides that can undercut formal talks. Plus, Vienna’s damn beautiful. That Zarif could read the latest notes on the agreement while sunbathing on his balcony overlooking the architecture of Mozart’s city, well, that contributed more than you might imagine.
Next time you’re planning a negotiation of any type, consider the location carefully. Their office is a very bad idea. Their conference room is slightly better. Better options: a quiet coffee shop, a hotel conference room, an arrivals lounge at an airport or train terminal, going for a walk. Neutral territory is good. If it's a tense issue, neutral territory is critical.
The President negotiates at Camp David for a reason. If you can get your target to a different space, they'll be primed to think differently.
2. Control the Rhythm.
When these negotiations began, John Kerry was not far removed from the bicycle accident that broke his leg. He was forced to step out of the negotiations regularly for physical therapy. Some afternoons, he took a break and headed back to his team’s own bunker, the Imperial Hotel. While these actions could have been disruptive, they actually served the rhythm of the talks. Each of the parties at the table were managing the home front at the same time they were battling the other team — and Mr. Kerry and President Obama happened to be managing a home front full of voices accusing them of being too eager to make a deal. Slowing down, taking breaks, walking away and coming back — and blowing past the deadline by nearly two weeks — changed the rhythm of the conversations from frantic to steady.
Next time you’re looking toward a period of tense negotiations, consider the rhythm of the session. Choosing morning or afternoon or evening; planning for meals, coffee, or breaks for calls and email; composing the meeting agenda with an eye toward natural stopping points — all decisions that will dictate the rhythm.
3. Celebrate Later.
Speaking of home fronts: during the entirety of the Vienna conversations, chatter from U.S. Presidential hopefuls mixed with grand denouncements from Iran’s Supreme leader–plus back-up vocals from Israel’s leadership–to create a noisy chorus of opinions about the deal.
While talking heads, heads of state, journalists and politicos all shouted their opinions, the negotiators themselves kept their mouths shut. In the final tense days of the negotiation, Kerry said hardly a word. Zarif was tight-lipped. Neither even bothered to employ the phrases that had become their frequent refrains: hopeful, committed to the process, hard work, etc. All was silence.
Except, of course, for one tweet. A bit too eager, the office of Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, posted a statement on Twitter a day too soon: "#IranDeal is the victory of diplomacy and mutual respect over the outdated paradigm of exclusion and coercion."
Minutes later, the tweet disappeared, and the sentence was reposted, with a tiny adjustment: "If #IranDeal …."
Missteps like that one can disrupt the cautious steps toward completion. Negotiation is not about agreement; It's about faithful execution of agreement. Many an able negotiator has let off the gas too early, and watched a tidy agreement spin into disarray. Celebrate the bedding in of a deal, not the closing of a deal — which is really only the beginning of an agreement (as U.S. negotiators, looking at 60 days of Congressional debate, know very well).
4. Negotiation is Not About Winning.
Here is the clearest sign of a negotiation well-managed: everyone goes home feeling that they’ve won. The Supreme Leader of Iran can voice support for the deal and in the same sentence continue his obligatory anti-Western rhetoric. Meanwhile President Obama steps in front of a camera and claims victory and Europe claims the outcome an historic agreement. Surely both sides didn’t really win the deal. But they won enough of it that both could publicly own victory.
Believe it or not, true negotiation is not about winning. It’s about creating mutual value. Here’s an irony we're not comfortable embracing: if you are to get what you really want, it's necessary to know what your target wants, too — and even to help them get it. Or something close enough.
It’s doubtful that your year will include a deal as historic as the one Kerry and Zarif walked away with, but you’ll need to take your negotiations just as seriously. Whether coming to terms with your investors, pushing to add head-count to your team, aligning with a distribution company, or seeking a pay raise after a performance review, approach the conversation with the seriousness of an international nuclear negotiator.