In August 2000, former White House OMB Director Jack Lew told me “(t)he most critical thing in a negotiation is to get inside your opponent’s head and figure out what he really wants.”
In a talk today assessing the Vietnam war, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reinforced this point by saying most of what went wrong in Vietnam began with U.S. policy makers underestimating the resolve of its North Vietnamese counterparts to achieve reunification. “America wanted compromise,” Kissinger said, and “Hanoi wanted victory.”
Knowing your counterpart’s goals matters because your ability to achieve your goals often depends on whether the other side can achieve its goals. If their goals directly conflict with yours, reaching a successful agreement becomes more difficult. But if they don’t directly conflict, and are in fact aligned with each other, great deals can happen.