In International Negotiations, Manage Hard Bargainers

How Hardline Negotiating Strategies Make Agreement More Difficult

By on / International Negotiation

International Negotiations

Public demands and threats—particularly when delivered as a precondition to negotiation—make international negotiations more competitive and less collaborative.

Restoring Diplomatic Relations with Cuba

In December 2015, the Obama administration announced with great fanfare that it was opening negotiations aimed at restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba. The secretive nature of the international negotiations leading up to the announcement raised optimism among many observers—even as they attracted criticism from others—that a thaw with Cuba was imminent. But as the U.S. delegation launched two days of negotiations in Cuba in January 2016, it quickly became clear that distrust, cultural barriers, and hardline negotiating tactics could make agreement more difficult to achieve than was first anticipated.


Click here to download your copy of International Negotiations: Cross-Cultural Communication Skills for International Business Executives from
 the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


Public posturing on both sides prior to the negotiations contributed to their difficulty. The Obama administration said that Cuba must meet U.S. requests in several key areas, such as the lifting of travel restrictions on American diplomats inside Cuba, for full diplomatic ties to be restored.

And Cuban officials seemed intent on throwing cold water on the talks from the start. One high-ranking Cuban official was careful to clarify that his country wasn’t “normalizing relations with the United States,” but rather was reestablishing diplomatic ties, according to the Associated Press (AP). Cuba also reportedly said it considered U.S. intentions to grant legal residency to Cuban immigrants to be a deal-breaker.

Such positioning seemed to have solidified rather than softened by the end of the two days of talks. “Changes in Cuba aren’t negotiable,” Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s top diplomat for U.S. affairs, told the AP afterward. Vidal went on to say “it will be difficult to conceive of the reestablishment of relations” between the two nations as long as Cuba remains on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. President Obama reportedly has launched a review of Cuba’s inclusion on the list.

Vidal also told the AP that the U.S. Congress would have to lift many elements of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, such as the U.S. ban on tourism to Cuba, for Cuba to consider normalization of its relationship with the United States. The Republican-led Congress is unlikely to vote for such measures.

Even as she demanded such concessions, Vidal enumerated concessions that Cuba was unwilling to make, as reported in the New York Times. She said that Cuba would not turn over U.S. fugitives granted asylum in Cuba nor give U.S. diplomats the freedom to move about Cuba without reduced U.S. support of Cuban dissidents.

At the end of the two-day talks, it was unclear whether Cuba’s hardline positions were simply an opening negotiating gambit designed to win concessions or true deal-breakers. Exacerbating the situation, a few days after the talks, Raúl Castro publicly insisted that the United States would need to meet three conditions in order for Cuba to consider normalizing relations with the U.S.: return the U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay to Cuba, lift the trade embargo on Cuba, and compensate Cubans for the “human and economic damage” caused by the embargo.

In international negotiations, it can be frustrating when the other party opens with hardline demands that appear to narrow the field of options. The difficulties posed by cross-cultural communication and different bargaining styles could be holding you back.

How can you convince a hard bargainer to abandon her firm positions and adopt a more collaborative approach? Here are a few suggestions:

Listen to understand. If a negotiating partner or team repeatedly expresses hard-and-fast positions, they may be concerned you’re not listening or fear you’ll take advantage of them. Rather than drawing your own lines in the sand, encourage the other side to fully express their views and concerns with the goal of identifying the interests underlying their positions. Devote ample time to listening actively, avoiding the urge to express your own views until both you and the other part are satisfied that you understand their interests fully.

Discuss multiple issues simultaneously. The structure of the two-day talks in Havana may offer a hint as to why they foundered: The parties appeared to focus on one issue at a time, making their way down pre-established list (migration issues, passport fraud, and joint search-and-rescue missions on the first day; embassies on the second day). Discussing issues one at a time keeps parties focused on their positions and prevents them from noticing potential tradeoffs that may exist across issues. Though it can be helpful to establish a mutual understanding of the issues at stake, a negotiating agenda is typically counterproductive in international negotiation and more typical business negotiations alike.

Keep talks private. Discuss with the other party the importance of keeping negotiations private. If the other side does make inflammatory public statements, ignore them or deal with them behind closed doors. Above all, resist the urge to respond with heated public statements of your own, lest you call off the negotiation before it even gets started.

Related Article: Overcoming Cultural Barriers in Business Negotiations


Click here to download your copy of International Negotiations: Cross-Cultural Communication Skills for International Business Executives from
 the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


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