Image of U.S. Army soldiers in a high-stakes negotiation in the Middle East circa. 2015.

High-Stakes Negotiations: From Conflict to the Conference Room

Not-so recently, a professor of management at my alma mater kindly asked me to provide some insights for one of her undergraduate classes on negotiations. The article they were studying was written several years ago by renowned negotiation expert Jeff Weiss for Harvard Business Review. Weiss was exploring what the U.S. military could teach corporate America about high-risk and high-stakes negotiations. He was also largely responsible for the creation of West Point’s Negotiation Project, a program that really highlights Army priorities in that it “has no dedicated funds, faculty, or staff.”

Already in the rearview mirror, the post-mortem of Iraq and Afghanistan indicated an area that is persistently highlighted as particularly troubling is America’s difficulty with influence and human terrain. The art and science of negotiation falls squarely within this human-focused arena and is a task that has been left largely to untrained officers and NCOs. We continue to see these failures in places like Afghanistan as well as during partnership-building exercises like Beyond the Horizon in Central America, and here at home during CTC rotations.

To its credit, the Army has taken some cursory steps to include negotiation as a leadership skill. At the same time, our focus is naively shifting away from complex and intellectually demanding conflicts. The next generation of troops to live in remote villages, hopscotching through IED-riddled fields, will once again be unprepared to negotiate daily with skeptical and uncooperative locals in a hostile and high-stakes environment. The lessons learned and captured in documents like Weiss’ “Extreme Negotiations” will be lost for all but those whose jobs are dominated by human interaction.

On the other hand, the corporate world will continue to actively seek out knowledge gained by the military in the blood and the mud, applying them in an artful and profitable manner. While uniformed and civilian researchers have dedicated considerable time and ink to the topic of dangerous and stressful negotiations, much still has been left undiscovered and unarticulated. Here are just three considerations that have been overlooked, and will contribute to the growing body of literature on the subject. These three points are equally applicable in conflict as they are in the conference room.

1) Successful negotiations often hinge on preparations far in advance of the primary negotiation.

This generally happens behind the scenes, sometimes in a manner that the principals aren’t even aware of.

To illustrate, in 2010 a young BN commander from the 82nd Airborne Division sat down to negotiate a delicate transfer of property with Mayor Hamidi of Kandahar. The property in question was an agricultural research facility that had been funded by international aid associations for a decade, to the tune of several million dollars. It was instrumental in generating important findings on crop yields and pomegranate distribution, a significant problem that was costing the regional economy dearly. The 82nd needed to turn it into a firebase. While Mayor Hamidi was engaged long before the American battlespace owner was, neither were fully aware that my PSYOP team, Canadian PSYOP, and CIMIC, along with subordinate commanders and NCOs from the 82nd, had been engaging several of the stakeholders well in advance of the main negotiation, building relationships, trust, and uncovering root motivations and objections.

These preparatory efforts are equally as important in the business sector. Securing subordinate echelon buy-in can help pave the way to executive-level success.

2) Negotiations should be planned, wargamed, and rehearsed.

When conducting a cordon and search, a raid, or even a routine convoy, maneuver elements plan, test the plan, and rehearse using sand tables and rock drills. Soldiers whose jobs are human-terrain focused, such as HUMINT and PSYOP, do the same thing—crafting face-to-face engagement outlines (FFEO), wargaming their approaches, arguments, and lines of persuasion, then spending hours rehearsing, first internally, then with an interpreter or two if needed.

Within the military and the business sector, outside of small groups of specialized professionals, this sort of deliberate planning for persuasive communication is nonexistent. As humans, we tend to drastically overestimate our competence in this arena, believing we can handle these delicate conversations on the fly. We can’t.

When high-stakes negotiations are planned, tested, and rehearsed, they tend to be significantly more successful.

3) Cultural competency is critical to high-stakes negotiations across cultures.

If you do not understand the motivations, vulnerabilities, and psychographics of a foreign culture, it becomes exceedingly difficult to negotiate with them. As Americans, we tend to be particularly Americentric. Even skilled negotiation experts fall victim to this cognitive bias. For example, in Weiss’ article the authors outline their third strategy, “Elicit Genuine Buy-In,” by appealing to a Western understanding of concepts like “facts” and “fairness.” It is absolutely true that eliciting genuine buy-in is important for a mutually beneficial and enduring outcome.

It is also true that what people value, or even think of as “fact” or “fair,” can be very different in places like Afghanistan, Indonesia, or Peru. It’s important to understand what your negotiating partner values individually and culturally. Don’t assume that things like objective truth and equality are universally privileged—they aren’t.

For instance, faith in rural southern Afghanistan plays an enormous role. I watched a fresh and idealistic lieutenant destroy his capacity for relationship building when asked about his religious heritage. He explained, honestly, that he was an atheist. Had he been Christian, Jewish, or Hindu, that would have been tolerable, but to be faithless indicates a self-centeredness that most rural Pashtun won’t abide by. It didn’t matter how fair or cooperative he was from that point on, he was dead in the water.

Weiss et. al. specifically discuss Afghanistan, a deeply Islamic country, while explicating the importance of partnership and understanding. Interestingly enough, they also provide us an excellent example of failing to concern themselves with cross-cultural values. The spelling they use of Islam’s holy book, ‘Koran’, has fallen out of favor due to its inaccuracy, and has been replaced by the more competent spelling, Qur’an. While this may not seem like an issue to most Westerners, many Muslims take exception to the earlier spelling as being indicative of colonial disrespect in the same manner as the offensive spelling ‘moslem’. These seemingly small errors can become showstoppers in delicate negotiations.

Cultural competency reduces the opportunity for miscommunication and prevents irrelevant mistakes from derailing the negotiation.

Originally written for — Aug. 11, 2015, updated Jun 27, 2023