It’s about time we had a national conversation about negotiation. Thanks to Donald Trump, we now can.
To be fair, it is not so obvious that the Trump negotiation style, the one he is touting in his various media appearances, is really the one that he uses when making a deal. It is altogether possible that Trump has decided to present himself as a tough, even brutal gladiator and to cast the process in terms of mortal combat. After all, the general public is more likely to see negotiation as a conflict rather than cooperation.
One willing accepts that Trump has made great business deals, but, for now, considering his behavior in the political arena, he seems more skilled at the art of the insult than the art of the deal. As it happens, what works in business does not necessarily work in politics. If you don’t believe it, ask Silvio Berlusconi.
By Trump’s version of his great negotiating successes, he wins nearly all the time because he pounds his opponents into submission. His adversarial, confrontational take-no-prisoners approach seems to play well with a public that has been brought up watching WWF wrestlers.
At the same time, when talking about Mexico Trump consistently asserts that its leaders are all geniuses while ours are all losers, idiots and fools. One is left wondering how it happens that the per capita GDP of a country led by losers is five times greater than the per capita GDP of a country that is led by geniuses. Perhaps we will need another national conversation to understand that one.
And why would a country led by geniuses would simply buckle to pressure exerted by anyone, no less Donald Trump? Unless Trump is going to start a trade war or some other kind of war, why would the Mexican geniuses pay for the construction of a wall?
Moreover, when you assert in public that you are going to ram something down the throat of a negotiating partner, you are putting him in a position where he will have to resist, no matter what. By threatening your partner’s face, you are guaranteeing that you will never get a deal done.
Roi Ben-Yehuda emphasizes that when negotiation, it is important not to threaten the other party’s face, not to insult him. He begins by taking us back in time:
During the 1950s, the U.S. was trying to gain access to Mexico’s oil and natural gas reserves. Realizing that their counterpart desperately needed their technology, industrial know-how and investment capital, the U.S. opened the negotiation with a very low offer. That offer was considered so insulting that the Mexican government started to burn off its oil and natural gas rather than provide the U.S. access to its fields.
One suspects that Trump does not spend his time insulting the people with whom he negotiates business deals. One suspects that the gladiatorial negotiator is really a lot of posturing. For now it seems to be working some magic on the polls. When negotiating in public for a government, it is less likely to be productive.
Ben-Yehuda describes the Trump style:
Trump’s preferred negotiation style—at least as a rhetorical trope—is one of power, toughness, and dominance. For him, an effective negotiator is someone adept at hardball tactics, forceful arguments, ultimatums, walkouts, threats, public blustering, and table pounding.
How does it work in practice?
Yet research shows that a solely competitive approach to negotiation—Trump’s preferred style—often leads to stalemates, less than optimal or satisfying solutions, damaged relationships, low levels of trust, feelings of resentment, desire for vengeance, and sometimes even violence.
Trump makes negotiation appear to be a zero-sum game: we win, you lose, or else, you win, we lose. And yet, true negotiation involves finding a middle ground, splitting differences and ensuring that everyone walks away with something.
In Ben-Yehuda’s words:
In contrast, a cooperative approach to negotiation—one that perceives the conflict as a shared problem to be solved—often leads to more creative and mutually satisfying outcomes, preserved or improved relationships, higher levels of trust, and increased self-esteem.
If a negotiation is part of an ongoing business relationship, one does well to ensure that it is cooperative. It seems better to cooperate and collaborate than to confront and beat up on someone:
According to Joshua N. Weiss, a negotiation expert and co-founder of the Global Negotiation Initiative at Harvard University, in recent years there has been "a very noticeable shift from a strictly competitive hardball approach to negotiation to a much more collaborative one. This is because companies understand if they burn bridges when they negotiate they lose customers in the process. More importantly, their reputation suffers dramatically. As a result, other companies hesitate, or worse, refuse to work with them.”
An expert in negotiation explains the Trump approach:
“As a negotiator, Trump is more about achieving his short-term interests without regard for the other party or any inclination that he wants a long-term relationship,” explains Beth Fisher-Yoshida, Director of the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program at Columbia University.
Problems arise when you negotiating partner comes away feeling defeated or shamed.
“If a party loses badly and publicly,” she [Fisher-Yoshida] continues, “there is a sense of shame or embarrassment that will not bode well for the future. The other party suffered humiliation and depending on the party’s cultural orientation, will do something to right the offense. The next round will be even more challenging because it will not only be about the subject being negotiated, but also personal revenge and retaliation.”
When Trump explains how he is going to pound all of those other countries into submission, you should ask first whether he is really interested in negotiation or whether he wants to impose his will on them. Or better, when he is simply exploiting the gullibility of certain segments of the American public.
And since, this process is all taking place in the public eye, keep in mind that it’s possible that some of our opponents might prefer to burn their oil than to cave in to the Donald.