How to Negotiate with Difficult People: International Negotiation, and a Refusal to Communicate

Program on Negotiation chair Robert Mnookin offers negotiation advice on the complex question of whether to negotiate with an unsavory party.

By — on / International Negotiation


Business negotiators sometimes face the difficult question of whether to negotiate with someone they believe to be immoral, untrustworthy, or otherwise undesirable as a negotiating partner. In his book Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight (Simon & Schuster, 2011), Program on Negotiation chair Robert Mnookin offers negotiation advice on the complex question of whether to negotiate with an unsavory party.

The question becomes all the more complex when we would be negotiating not on our own behalf, but representing someone else. Turning to the realm of international negotiations, that issue came to the forefront upon the killing of journalist James Foley by the terrorist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on August 19, 2015. In interviews with the New York Times, members of Foley’s family described the confusion and stress they faced when they found themselves virtually alone in trying to negotiate his release.

Michael Foley and Crisis Negotiations in Syria

About a year after Foley’s capture in Syria in November 2012, ISIS sent an email to his brother, Michael Foley, that revealed the group wanted money for Foley’s release. A follow-up email demanded about $130 million in ransom and the release of Muslim prisoners from the United States.

The Foley family took the messages to the FBI, which warned them that, according to longstanding policy, the U.S. government would never pay a ransom or trade prisoners for hostages. The Foleys also were told that it would be a crime for private citizens to pay off terrorists.

The FBI reportedly communicated with the Foleys regularly but shared little information due to security concerns. Complaining to the Times that they felt left in the dark, the Foleys say the FBI did not tell them, for example, that ISIS was in contact with the relatives of 22 other Western hostages, including three other Americans.

The response of several European nations to the kidnappings of their countrymen stood in stark comparison to the hands-off approach of the United States and the United Kingdom, which also refuses to negotiate with terrorists. After ISIS sent messages to family members of hostages, France, Spain, Switzerland, and Italy set up around-the-clock crisis centers. They negotiated directly with ISIS, making demands and ransom counteroffers through family members’ email accounts. To date, ISIS has released 15 Europeans in exchange for many millions of dollars.

As they slowly learned more about the European negotiating efforts, the four American families whose relatives were hostages began holding group conference calls and raising ransom money.

Around this time, the FBI reportedly told the Foleys that the U.S. government was unlikely to prosecute them for paying a ransom, and also gave them some negotiating advice: stall with the goal of bringing the ransom price down. But even if the Foleys could have raised the millions needed to secure their son’s release, they knew they would not be able to meet ISIS’s demand for a prisoner swap.

Confusing the situation, on May 31, the Taliban released Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the sole American prisoner of war in the Afghan conflict, in exchange for five Taliban detainees.

The Obama administration justified that apparent break with policy in part on the grounds that Bergdahl was a POW, as compared to civilians, like Foley, who had entered a war zone by choice.

President Obama authorized a rescue operation that was conducted on July 3, but it failed. On August 8, the president authorized airstrikes on ISIS locations in Iraq.

On August 12, the Foleys received a final message from their son’s captors, complaining about the U.S. government’s failure to engage in negotiations.

ISIS executed James Foley a week later, American journalist Steven J. Sotloff on September 2, and a British aid worker soon after.

The U.S. government has legitimate grounds for refusing to negotiate with ISIS and similar terrorist groups, such as the very real fear that ransoms could prompt future kidnappings of Americans abroad.

Yet even as it stood by U.S. policy and refused to get involved—and even if little could have been done diplomatically to save Foley’s life—the Obama administration could have taken steps, such as the following, to ease the stress on the Foleys and the families of the other hostages:

4 Negotiation Tactics for Dealing with an Uncooperative Counterpart

Negotiation Tactic 1. Communicate.

It might have more openly shared information that was bound to become public knowledge, such as news about European hostages.

Negotiation Tactic 2. Advise.

It could have given the Foleys and other families advice upfront about how to respond to terrorists’ emails rather than leaving them to face this daunting task alone.

Negotiation Tactic 3. Be consistent.

It could have sent more consistent messages to the families of the potential repercussions of negotiating with ISIS.

Negotiation Tactic 4. Clarify.

It could have communicated its policy on prisoner swaps more clearly so as to avoid criticism over its differential treatment of Bergdahl and the ISIS hostages.

In your own professional life, you may be able to find a variety of ways to support and educate those you represent while avoiding the need to negotiate on their behalf.

How do you negotiate with difficult people?

Originally published in 2014.

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