The German Chancellor Seizes the Day, with Hesitation

Business negotiators have much to learn from Angela Merkel's cautious approach.

By PON Staffon / International Negotiation

Some negotiators make a strong impression through bold opening statements and mesmerizing presentations. Others sit back, closely observing their counterparts and gathering information before making any decisive moves.

German chancellor Angela Merkel is the latter type: quiet, watchful, and slow to act. Her style springs from many factors, writes George Packer in a profile of Merkel in The New Yorker: her upbringing in East Germany, her training as a scientist, her position as a woman in a male-dominated realm, and her naturally cautious and patient personality. Merkel has described standing on a diving board for the full duration of an hour-long swimming class as a child, only jumping when a bell signaled the end of the class.

“With a certain hesitation, she seized the day,” German film director Volker Schlöndorff slyly told the New Yorker, speaking of Merkel’s entry into politics after the collapse of Communism in East Germany. Merkel’s rise to become arguably the most powerful woman in the world is often described as being almost beyond comprehension given her reticence and lack of flash. But, in fact, it is these very qualities that contributed to Merkel’s success as a leader and a negotiator, as Packer’s article reveals.

An outside perspective

Among German leaders, Merkel is considered a “triple anomaly,” writes Packer: She is a woman, a scientist, and an East German. These characteristics combined to make Merkel an outsider in German politics.

In 1991, Merkel told the photographer Herlinde Koelbl that she never felt truly at home in East Germany because of her “relatively sunny spirit” and optimistic outlook. That outsider status carried over into her early forays into politics after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Many Germans have criticized Merkel for failing to rebel against the Communist system of her youth—and for choosing to take her regular sauna instead of joining the throngs the night the Berlin Wall opened in November 1989, when she was 35. But as the two Germanys were integrated, Merkel soon began volunteering for a new democratic political group, Democratic Awakening, making herself useful behind the scenes.

Merkel has never explained her decision to trade her career as a chemist for a life in politics, but her industriousness and efficiency soon earned her a position in Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s cabinet. Kohl and other members of the West German old boys’ network openly belittled her, but Merkel advanced thanks to her particularly East German traits: “self-discipline, strength of will, and silence,” writes Packer.

Joining the established Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Merkel was again an outsider, “strange to everything in the Party,” according to German journalist Karl Feldmeyer, including its stances on social issues such as immigration and gay marriage. Instead of bonding with her compatriots on hot-button issues, Merkel was driven by an abiding belief in freedom and “her perfect instinct for power,” says Feldmeyer.

In reaction to Kohl’s “smug bullying,” Merkel and her closest adviser, a woman named Beate Baumann, “played hardball but relished their victories privately,” writes Packer. Merkel shocked Germany by turning on Kohl publicly after he was implicated in a campaign-finance scandal; she soon replaced him as chair of the CDU. Fortunate to “live in a period when macho was in decline,” as journalist Bernd Ulrich told Packer, Merkel beat another male politician who disparaged and underestimated her, Gerhard Schröder, to become chancellor in 2005.

To view their interactions more rationally, negotiators are often advised to ask outsiders for their perspective or to actively cultivate an outsider’s view. Through twists of fate, Merkel time and again found herself as an outsider, a position that enabled her to carefully assess her counterparts; identify their weaknesses; and, in competitive situations, advance her own interests.

A keen observer

Merkel’s comfort in the role of outsider has positioned her to capitalize on another key negotiation skill: the ability to learn through observation. This trait was also fostered by her background in East Germany, where those who spoke their minds were brutally punished. Rainer Eppelmann, a dissident East German clergyman, characterized Merkel to Packer as one of the many “whisperers” who lived under Communism—someone who never said what she thought, felt, or feared because of the inherent dangers of doing so.

This sense of caution served Merkel and other “whisperers” well after the two Germanys merged, according to Eppelmann, leading them “to think things over before speaking.” Comparing Merkel to a chess player, Eppelmann said he had the impression that Merkel “is always a few moves ahead of her competitor.”

Caution also fostered Merkel’s keen listening skills. One longtime political associate told Packer that Merkel typically speaks 20% to her counterparts’ 80% in conversations. Such characterizations suggest that Merkel understands intuitively what other negotiators learn through practice: By listening actively to our counterparts—that is, absorbing what they have to say without interruption, asking questions aimed at clarifying our understanding, and repeating what we’ve heard without judgment—we gain a fuller knowledge of their interests and build trust.

Listening to understand

Perhaps in no other relationship has Merkel’s talent for listening and observing been more on display than in her dealings with Russian president Vladimir Putin. The two have a shared history in East Germany—Putin was a KGB operative there during the Cold War—and switch easily between German and Russian during their weekly phone calls.

Merkel “has a way of talking to [Putin] that nobody [else] has,” one senior official in her government told Packer. “Above all, she tries to understand how he thinks,” writes Packer.

But Merkel is also blunt with Putin, pushing him hard when she believes he has overstepped and suggesting ways for him to save face and make a graceful retreat.

Merkel may have built up a keen understanding of Putin, but even she was caught off guard by the Russian invasion of Crimea. “The swiftness, the brutality, the coldheartedness” of Putin’s surprise move shocked Merkel, one of her aides told the New Yorker. After speaking with Putin following the invasion, she famously told U.S. president Barack Obama that the Russian president was living “in another world.”

Given her close ties to Putin, Merkel characteristically has taken the lead in attempting to bring him back down to earth and negotiate a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Ukraine. Last May, after Putin reneged on promises he made to her regarding the Russian public position on a referendum by Ukrainian separatists, Merkel showed her pique by canceling their phone call for the following week. “The Russians were stunned,” a senior German official told Packer. Such moves bother Putin, who “doesn’t like to be left out,” according to the official. Aware that Putin (unlike herself) was uncomfortable in the role of outsider, Merkel understood that isolation could serve as both punishment and motivator in her negotiations with him.

A scientific mind

While working as a quantum chemist in East Germany for a decade, Merkel learned to methodically make sense of complex quantities “and then, even after making a decision, letting it sit for a while before acting,” writes Packer.

Though Merkel reportedly has a temper, she also has a scientist’s penchant for keeping her emotions under wraps and viewing problems as rationally as possible. “She is like a computer,” one of her political associates told the New Yorker.

This analytical training has served Merkel well as a lead negotiator on the crisis in Ukraine, to which she devotes two or three hours daily. She has had to maintain her coalition in the Bundestag, Germany’s legislative body; negotiate unity on the issue among 27 European leaders while working within their constraints; and keep lines of communication open with Putin.

Merkel has failed to make significant headway with Putin but has kept up the pressure. In early 2015, she warned Putin that the European Union would not lift its economic sanctions against Russia unless Moscow makes progress on all points of the Minsk accord, a negotiated agreement that stipulates where Russia and Ukraine can each maintain control under the observation of European monitors.

Treating the Ukraine crisis as a practical problem to be solved, Merkel has urged Obama and hawkish members of the U.S. Congress to be patient. Refusing to threaten Putin militarily, she is waiting for him to “self-destruct,” Packer writes—the same strategy she used with Helmut Kohl and other adversaries from her past. If history is a guide, Putin would be wise to recognize the value of working with Merkel rather than against her.

Putting it all together

Merkel’s personality, intelligence, and history combined to help her cultivate skills that can be particularly useful in political negotiations and leadership. Though we all have unique strengths and experiences that we can draw on in negotiation, we would also likely benefit from absorbing these keys to Merkel’s success:

– Err on the side of caution.

 Because impulsivity can be dangerous in negotiation, think before you decide.

– Take an outsider’s view.

 A certain detachment can help you better understand others and anticipate threats.

– Listen to learn.

 Contrary to conventional wisdom, listening and observing can ultimately be more rewarding in negotiation than blatant persuasion tactics.

– Cultivate analytical skills.

Methodically strive to replace intuition with rational analysis in your most important negotiations.

Defusing Power Plays

      1. In 2007, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin were ensconced in negotiations at Putin’s residence in Sochi, Russia, over energy supplies. During one meeting, in the presence of journalists, Putin allowed his black Labrador to approach and sniff Merkel, who has been afraid of dogs since being bitten by one. Merkel froze, clearly uncomfortable. Putin watched, refusing to call off the animal, clearly relishing the moment, as George Packer describes in the New Yorker.
      1. The German reporters in the room were enraged on their chancellor’s behalf. But afterward, Merkel was able to appraise the incident coolly and even drew on her hard-won understanding of his psyche to put Putin in his place. “I understand why he has to do this—to prove he’s a man,” she told reporters. “He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”
      1. In negotiation, it can be tempting to react emotionally to a counterpart’s power plays and dirty tricks. But when we do so, we give the other party the upper hand. If you have taken the time to carefully observe the other side’s strengths and weaknesses, you will be well positioned to deliver a more rational response that shows you won’t be manipulated by cheap tactics.