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When to press your advantage

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in Leaders & Managers

Sometimes you can seize a chance to bargain for far more than you thought possible.

Max Kampelman met Ronald Reagan at a dinner in Hollywood. Later, as a diplomat in the Carter administration, Kampelman was preparing to return to private life after Reagan’s election. To his surprise, the incoming president asked him to stay.

Reappointed to the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Kampelman told the president in 1982 that he saw signs the Soviets were eager to end the talks and might give in to a big demand. Kampelman wanted the Soviets to release victims of repression.

He predicted that not just the Soviets, but also some U.S. allies, would resist the Americans’ new demand. Reagan understood that they would have to handle the situation quietly, mostly because the demand might bog down the talks but also because publicity would make it hard for the Soviets to concede.

Reagan wanted to ensure that Russian Pentecostals in hiding at the American Embassy in Moscow would be released. He also handed the diplomat a list of imprisoned Russian Jews, saying, “See what you can do about these people, Max.”

It took some fancy footwork, but Kampelman got the KGB to accept his proposal on the condition that nobody be told, not even the Soviet ambassador in Washington. Hundreds of human rights prisoners were freed and allowed to leave the country.

Lesson: In a negotiation, if you sense that your adversary wants to get the deal done fast or at any cost, press for your “dream” position. You might just get it.

—Adapted from “The Ronald Reagan I Knew,” by Max Kampelman, The Weekly Standard.

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