In his heyday as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger was responsible for establishing a formal diplomatic relationship with China and for reducing some of the heightened Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union. He brokered nonproliferation treaties with Israel, South Korea, and Pakistan, and he orchestrated the mutually beneficial transfer of the Panama Canal Zone to Panama -- among other things.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Kissinger was an epic negotiator. Here are three strategies for your own negotiations from the man's incredible career.
Listen to your counterparty
In establishing a relationship with the Chinese government -- the first in two decades -- Kissinger was responsible for a politically sensitive negotiation at a very tense time during the Cold War. The two governments had been dancing around each other for some time, and now was the time for concrete results.
However, despite the relatively high level of distrust between the two governments, Kissinger didn't march into the meeting with a dogmatic stance. Instead, he approached his negotiations with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai with an open mind. He adapted to his counterpart's temperament and took a modest, relationship-building approach to the negotiation.
"I soon found that the best way to deal with him was to present a reasonable position, explain it meticulously, and then stick to it. I sometimes went so far as to let him see the internal studies that supported our conclusions."
It worked: not only did Zhou willingly make adjustments to an important policy statement without demanding American concessions in return, the two parties were able to publicly disclose their agreements and disagreements. The move fostered greater discussion going forward and helped both parties deal with political hardliners in their own countries.
So, step back and take a hint from the person on the other side of the table.
Who are they and what is their approach? Where, in other words, can you meet in the middle and offer something of value? The listening approach served Kissinger well in establishing assertive but cooperative relations -- it can do the same for you.
Direct and clear communication
"The Soviet leadership would find the new [Nixon] administration prepared to negotiate lasting settlements reflecting real interests."
Kissinger wanted to negotiate a cooling of the arms race with the Soviet Union, but he had a problem. Thus far, communications between the two countries had taken the form of unilateral signaling or covert political maneuvering instead of talking.
A negotiation this complicated could never be carried out in that way.
So, the statesman proposed an alternative: he would establish a quiet, direct line of communication with the Soviet Union and foster agreement on a variety of issues.
Kissinger's "Channel" formed the basis of several long-running and successful negotiations. Between his establishment of open communications and his facility for linking (his word) different negotiations together to arrive at mutually beneficial outcomes, he was able to effect progress and de-escalation of tensions where before there was only dogma.
In your own negotiations, cut all probability of posturing and the passive aggressiveness from the equation. Instead, consider establishing open and direct lines of communication with the specific people you need to speak with, and use them liberally. This could involve having a private side conversation with the big decision-maker on the other side, or formalizing the process through correspondence.
Whatever the situation calls for, though, be direct, clear, and communicative.
"Only amateurs believe in one-sided deals."
To get to that impressive level of de-escalation took Kissinger years. He slowly worked with his Soviet counterparts and, when an opportunity to link two separate negotiations together arose, he quickly jumped on the chance.
In other words, he wasted no time, but also didn't force the time it took.
And in the end, it took years for Kissinger to find the right combination of issues to get the Soviet Union to meet American objectives. Searching for those issues, taking the time to understand what the Soviet Union wanted and cared about, and presenting the negotiation in a way that would benefit both parties was an exercise in patience. His process wasn't perfect, but his patient approach reaped benefits.
In your own negotiations, don't rush. Figure out your own pain points, but then spend some time learning about your counterparty. Where might they budge? What do they care about? And if nothing sticks right away, hold off and take your time to put something better together.
In Kissinger's case, the negotiation with the Soviet Union rocketed forward after the announcement of new relations between the U.S. and China. The entire time Kissinger had been building his relationship there, he was thinking about how he could use it to further the deescalation strategy with the Soviet Union.
Patiently, he built his position, and when it was ready, he moved. Brilliant.