Top International Negotiations: Canceled Talks Between the U.S. and Russia

Walking away from negotiations that seem fruitless may be your best BATNA

By — on / International Negotiation


On August 7, 2013, President Barack Obama canceled a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin scheduled for September of the same year in Moscow, citing a lack of progress on a variety of negotiations.

The announcement came on the heels of Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to former National Security Agency contractor and Edward Snowden, who made confidential data on American surveillance programs public.

But one administration official said Obama’s decision was “rooted in a much broader assessment and deeper disappointment” of Russia’s engagement in the agenda facing the two nations. Moscow and Washington failed to make headway on a variety of issues, including arms control, missile defense, trade, human rights, and Syria.

Obama’s snub of Putin was both practical and symbolic. On the one hand, the American president made a calculated decision not to waste precious time during his last term in office on negotiations that seemed unlikely to advance. At the same time, the very decision not to negotiate could be seen as an aggressive negotiating tactic. As Russia expert Andrew Kuchins said to the Times, “Why don’t we let [Putin] hang in the breeze for a while?”

The story suggests a strategic reason for breaking off ties, if only temporarily, with a counterpart. If you perceive the other side has dug in his heels and refuses to cooperate, ending the negotiations could halt a destructive and time-wasting cycle—and perhaps motivate your counterpart to extend an olive branch.

Accepting Challenges in Negotiation

Thinking about the ways you might be challenged by the other party sets you up to diagnose the tactic you are facing rather than simply reacting to it.

Begin your diagnosis by considering the assumptions you hold about the possible motivations behind the threat, apparent lie, or other hardball tactic. A common conclusion, for instance, would be that your counterpart is simply not a nice person. But wait: What if she is used to working in an industry where “shading the truth” is the norm? What if her company rewards her based solely on the price she negotiates? What if she is under stress and having trouble staying focused? Clearly, there is a whole host of reasons someone might resort to difficult tactics—and it’s up to you to identify which one (or more) it is.

Active listening, described in the sidebar on the next page, is one tool that can help you uncover a counterpart’s motivations and turn talks in a more productive direction. By drawing information out of the other party, you will begin to identify a range of responses beyond retaliating, backing down, or walking away.

Reframing Negotiations

Difficult negotiation tactics often reflect a focus on positions, not interests. A budget director who tells a department head that he won’t accept anything less than an across-the-board 5% budget cut this quarter is stating a clear position, but the interests that underlie the demand remain murky.

As you know, identifying each side’s interests in a negotiation is a crucial step toward collaborating to identify new sources of value to be divided. But how can you convince a hard bargainer to reframe the negotiation—that is, to move beyond a shallow focus on positions to a deeper consideration of interests?

To reframe, begin by treating the other side’s hard-line position as important information rather than rejecting it, writes William Ury in his book Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations (Bantam, 1993). By doing so, you can avoid an argument over positions and enlist the other party as a creative problem solver.

In Getting Past No,  Ury offers numerous strategies to persuade the other party to share valuable information. Here are five of them:

1. Ask “Why?” questions. Open-ended questions such as “Why is it especially important that we cut our budget by 5% this quarter?” display an interest in your counterpart’s concerns that can deepen the conversation.

2. Ask “Why not?” As Ury notes, people who are reluctant to reveal their concerns may be only too happy to criticize yours. Therefore, asking questions such as “Why don’t we cut the marketing budget instead?” may provoke your counterpart to reveal a wealth of information about his concerns (such as the likely effect on sales, his reputation, etc.) in the process of shooting down your idea.

3. Ask “What if?” Engage the other party in a brainstorming session by posing questions, such as “What if I could help you convince the CEO that my department’s new initiative will save the company well over 5% this quarter?”

4. Ask for advice. It may sound surprising, but you can often disarm a hard bargainer simply by asking for her guidance. If you need an administrator’s approval for an exception to company policy, for example, ask her how she would recommend that you proceed. She is likely to be flattered by the request and offer some helpful ideas.

5. Ask “What makes that fair?” If the other party’s position strikes you as unreasonable, Ury suggests that you say something such as this: “You must have good reasons for thinking that’s a fair solution. I’d like to hear them.” Then mention any fairness standards that you consider to be more relevant to the discussion, such as market practice or past precedent.