A deal had been a long time coming. Back in November 2013, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear enrichment program in exchange for lighter economic sanctions from Western nations. To hammer out the details, Iran entered into talks with six nations: China, Russia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Eventually, the talks became primarily bilateral between Iran and the United States.
After numerous delays and false starts, the U.S. and Iranian negotiating teams were reportedly optimistic this past February that they would meet a March 31 deadline for an initial deal and a June 30 deadline for a final agreement. Sounding like a Western-trained negotiator, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, said in a speech that his team was seeking “win-win mutual understanding,” according to Reuters. “We made progress,” U.S. secretary of state John Kerry said following a round of talks in Geneva in February, the New York Times reports. Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif echoed that assessment, saying the two sides had reached “a better understanding.”
Then came the letter. On March 9, 47 Republican U.S. senators informed Iran’s leaders in an open missive that they would consider any agreement reached as “nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei” that could be revoked “with the stroke of a pen” by the next U.S. president or modified by Congress at any time.
The letter was roundly condemned by the White House and many commentators, who called it a publicity stunt that undermined U.S. foreign policy. President Obama suggested that, by jeopardizing talks with Iran’s more moderate leaders, the letter allied the Republicans with Iranian hard-liners. Republican leaders’ decision to invite Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak out against the Iran deal before a joint session of Congress in March, without notifying Obama, had already proved controversial.
Zarif publicly dismissed the letter as “propaganda.” But behind closed doors, Kerry and his team reportedly had to do damage control to alleviate Iranian officials’ fears that Republicans could sabotage whatever deal the parties might reach. The parties managed to reach a preliminary agreement on April 2, two days after their deadline.
In negotiation, we sometimes forget that the stakes are high not only for the parties at the table but also for others who are watching from the sidelines. As this story suggests, we ignore this fact at our peril. Though the White House might not have been able to predict that Republicans in the Senate would insert themselves into the middle of the negotiations with Iran, it was a risk that Obama implicitly accepted when he decided to pursue an agreement that would not require congressional approval.
Congressional Republicans released their open letter because they felt they’d been shut out of the decision-making process on Iran. Though the U.S. Constitution requires the Senate to ratify treaties with a two-thirds vote, presidents commonly avoid this requirement by negotiating so-called executive agreements with foreign counterparts. The next president theoretically could abandon Obama’s deal with Iran, as the Republicans threatened, but such a move would be a significant break from tradition. U.S. presidents typically uphold even international agreements they disagree with to preserve the nation’s reputation as a trustworthy and reliable negotiating partner.
As this news story suggests, political negotiations follow specific rules that may preclude the need to involve interested bystanders in talks. By comparison, business negotiators may have greater motives and opportunities to engage with potential deal spoilers and try to get them on board.
Whether at home or at work, we’ve all encountered a truism about human behavior: When someone feels you’re ignoring her, she will look for a way to get your attention—and you might not like how she goes about it. We look at three steps you can take to prevent an unhappy bystander from sabotaging your own negotiations.
1. Anticipate and prepare for objections.
When preparing for an important negotiation, take time to consider the various parties who could be affected by an agreement. This list might include your colleagues, the other side’s colleagues, clients and customers on both sides, the public, government agencies, and so on. If you are a commercial building owner negotiating with a potential new tenant, for example, you might recognize that you could antagonize other tenants if you rent to one of their competitors or to a business that they otherwise consider undesirable.
Next, consider the interests of these relevant parties in the negotiation. What might upset or, alternatively, please them about the outcome you’re envisioning? How might they respond if they are displeased by your negotiation process or outcomes? Is there a risk they could create problems for you or those you represent? Suppose you’re planning to negotiate with your CEO for more resources for your department. You might recognize that another department head who is closer to the CEO than you are could get wind of your request and look for ways to claim those resources for his own team.
After identifying the relevant parties, think about whether any of them warrant a role in the negotiation. Should they be present at the table? Should you seek their feedback regularly throughout the process? Should they have the right to vote on or veto any negotiated agreement you might reach?
Even if you decide that an interested party shouldn’t have a direct role in your talks, there may be points you can negotiate to appease her. In your talks with your CEO, for example, you could propose involving other departments in the project you’re envisioning, in part to lessen the odds that they will try to spoil the deal.
You might also launch separate negotiations with likely objectors. Between negotiations with Iran in March, for instance, John Kerry took the time to fly to Saudi Arabia to meet with its leader, King Salman, and the foreign ministers of six other Middle Eastern nations to reassure them that any agreement reached would not boost Iran’s status in the region.
2. Highlight the risks of spoiling the deal.
Motivated by anger and a sense of injustice, deal spoilers often act impulsively, failing to think through how their attempted sabotage will play out. If, despite your best efforts, a potential spoiler remains suspicious of your motives and opposed to the negotiation, you could grab her attention by highlighting the risks of attempted sabotage.
To begin with, deal spoilers face a real risk of being blamed if their plans succeed. Iran expert Ellie Geranmayeh of the European Council on Foreign Relations told the New York Times (before a deal was reached) that if the Iran talks collapsed at the negotiating table, “the blame will nevertheless be placed on the U.S. legislators for poisoning negotiations” with their open letter. The Republican contingent could have served as a convenient scapegoat for the Obama administration if the negotiations reached an impasse. Similarly, in the business world, an individual who interferes with a deal in progress risks being ostracized within his organization or industry for his subterfuge.
In negotiation, we sometimes forget that the stakes are high not only for the parties at the table but also for others who are watching from the sidelines.
Moreover, acting out can backfire, promoting the very type of agreement a spoiler was trying to scuttle. Returning to the U.S.-Iran negotiations, before the Senate Republicans released their open letter, a solid bipartisan coalition supported legislation requiring Obama to submit any Iran deal to Congress for approval. But the letter so angered some Democrats that the Republicans may have lost the votes they would need to override a presidential veto of their bill. Reminding your potential spoiler of these and other dangers could motivate her to negotiate a mutually beneficial détente with you.
3. Work around the spoiler.
What if, despite your best efforts, a key player seems determined to remain a roadblock? In negotiations such as the Obama administration’s dealings with Iran, you may choose to proceed without them and hope for the best.
In other situations, you may need to bring the reluctant party on board to reach your goals. If so, it may be time to try a work-around, writes Harvard Law School professor Robert C. Bordone in the January 2007 Negotiation Briefings article “Dealing with a Spoiler? Negotiate Around the Problem.” A work-around is a strategic approach to reaching your goals by circumventing the spoiler who stands in your way.
One type of work-around that can be effective involves building coalitions that exploit what Harvard Business School professor James K. Sebenius has termed patterns of deference, or the common tendency of people to follow influential others on a particular path. By bringing respected parties on board, you may be able to build a coalition in support of your plan that the spoiler will find difficult to resist, advises Bordone.
If another department head in your organization remains opposed to your plans for your department, for example, identify other players who might influence him in your favor. Map these relationships backward to your target, and determine the best sequence of approach. Try to enlist these other players in your cause, and encourage them to make your case to the person holding you back. If the potential spoiler sees that your negotiation has the support of people he admires and respects, his resistance may wane. Because such efforts can backfire, however, you should be careful to enlist only those you know and trust to make your case to the potential spoiler.