Negotiating and Leveraging your Strengths: It’s all in the game

Emily B. Landau, Ph.D.


What matters most in a negotiation is not what you come into the negotiation with, but rather how you play the game. Read below what an experienced professional in the field of nuclear arms negotiations has to say on this issue. You will find that the advice that is offered is as applicable in the workplace and in your personal lives, as it is on the world stage.

What are the essential assets for successful bargaining? What gives you leverage at the negotiations table? It turns out that what matters most is not what you come into the negotiation with, but rather how you play the game.

In particular, if you are steadfast and determined, and focused on your goal, you are likely to do a better job. A second important factor is the ability to project a lack of dependence on the negotiated outcome. What weakens a negotiating position is the appearance that the negotiator wants the deal more than the other side. And a third important factor is the negotiating dynamic – honing your bargaining skills and thereby playing up your assets, with keen attention to how the negotiation is framed.

With these thoughts in mind, let us review the ongoing negotiation that the international community has been conducting with Iran over its suspected military nuclear aspirations.

In this case, there are important insights into what makes for successful international bargaining.  For example, ever since the P5+1 group of states took the lead in confronting Iran in 2009, it has become apparent that the side that seemed to have all the cards for imposing its will on the other – massive combined military, economic, political power – was not able to translate that power into leverage at the bargaining table. However, Iran – absent significant military power and with a weakened economy – has maintained the upper hand in the negotiations setting, armed with a clear strategic goal, and the ability to play a tough tactical game.

In fact, the P5+1 has proven to be the weaker party on all counts.

These states have lacked determination and a clear and unified strategy, while projecting their distaste for the military action that they half-heartedly threatened. Indeed, if there was a military threat at all, it came from the US alone – the others would not even consider using force, and they said so.

With this negotiating strategy, the P5+1 states were transmitting the message that they were dependent on negotiations to solve the problem. The only leverage the international negotiators were able to muster was economic hardship on Iran through a tough sanctions regime, and this did bring Iran to negotiate more seriously in late 2013. But they had nothing to back up their threats that “the window of diplomacy would not remain open forever.” Practically it would, and it has.

Complicating matters for the P5+1 was the fact that while the two sides were engaged in “negotiations”, there was no shared interest in a negotiated deal. Indeed, in contrast to the P5+1, Iran has been focused, steadfast, and has spoken with one voice – that of the Supreme Leader. Iran has clarified that it does not need the negotiation while at the same time demonstrating a semblance of cooperation when tactically necessary to ward off a harsh international response to its nuclear activities. Most of all, Iran has been focused with a singular mind to the bargaining dynamic and to issues of framing – using different tactics to try to highlight the other side’s weakness, while playing up its own ability to control events.

Translating these world stage lessons is fairly straightforward. When you are at the negotiating table for a workplace issue, you are encouraged to keep in mind the following strategies:

  • Remain steadfast and determined
  • Stay focused on your goal
  • Project a lack of dependence on the negotiated outcome
  • Play up your assets, with keen attention to how the negotiation is being framed