In 1979, U.S. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware was heading to Moscow when the Senate leadership asked him to meet with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and negotiate an amendment to the SALT II arms-control treaty.
Biden was told the Senate would not ratify the treaty without it.
The negotiation started in a fairly typical fashion. Gromyko, a hard-nosed, experienced diplomat, spent an hour explaining to Biden, then a junior senator, how the Soviets always had played catch-up in the arms race.
Gromyko then argued that SALT II favored the United States and, therefore, the Senate should simply ratify it. He unequivocally said “nyet” to the amendment.
“Mr. Gromyko,” Biden then said, “you make a very persuasive case. I agree with much of what you said. When I go back to my colleagues in the Senate, however, and report what you’ve just told me, some of them – such as Sen. Goldwater and Sen. Helms – will not be persuaded, … You have more experience in these arms-control matters than anyone else alive. How would you advise me to respond to my colleagues’ concerns?”
Gromyko’s response? He advised and coached Biden on what he should tell his skeptical Senate colleagues. The more advice and coaching he gave, however, the more he appreciated the necessity for the amendment. Gromyko’s “nyet” ultimately turned to “yes.”
What did Biden do and why did it work? First, Biden made effective use of his agency relationship with his Senate colleagues. Biden was negotiating on behalf of many diverse senators. And he didn’t have the authority to make binding decisions.
This gave Biden a strategic advantage. Studies have shown that agents negotiating on behalf of others concede less per unit time than do principals.
Plus, you can’t concede if you don’t have any authority:
Second, Biden reframed the issue from one of hard-line posturing and positioning to one of joint problem-solving. Instead of butting heads over who benefited the most from the treaty and amendment, Biden invited Gromyko to help him figure out how to satisfy his skeptical colleagues’ concerns.
They then approached the problem together.
Why did Biden do this? In part, because he had astutely evaluated Gromyko’ s negotiation style and mind set before the negotiation. Biden knew Gromyko had a reputation as a hard-nosed negotiator in the highly competitive world of arms control. Confronting Gromyko directly would likely have led nowhere. Gromyko wasn’t about to cave to a junior senator.
So Biden changed the tenor and focus of the negotiation by appealing to Gromyko’s ego and experience. In doing so, he reframed the issue.
Specifically, Biden explicitly recognized Gromyko’s persuasive abilities and agreed with some of what Gromyko had said; focused on the problem both faced if they wanted the treaty ratified; dished out some understated flattery; and asked for help in dealing with their problem.
Biden’s approach tracks similar tactics used domestically by Robert J. Lavinia, president of Phoenix-based Tosco Marketing Co., the parent company of Circle K and 76.
One secret to his negotiation success, Lavinia said, is “asking a bunch of questions and stepping into their shoes.” Sometimes it’s an ego issue. Other times not. But you need to find out what they really want and what they’re thinking.
Once you do, according to Lavinia, it often leads to an “attitudinal shift” that allows both sides to creatively problem-solve. Negotiation problems, he said, may then turn into business opportunities.
Next time you’re faced with a seemingly difficult negotiation, learn from Biden and Lavinia.
And never forget the role ego plays in many negotiations. Biden played off Gromyko’s ego to his advantage. We’re all safer as a result.
Published July 23, 1999 The Business Journal