Tuesday, October 7, 2014

In This Corner: Crisis Negotiations & Business Issues

“I’ve never seen anyone win in a war. I’ve only seen people lose less.”
Michael Tsur, crisis negotiator

When the towers of 9/11 came down, a bewildered humanity walked through the city’s dust into a new world.

It had turned upside down in a nanosecond, and the consequences would forever change the shape of international relations and international negotiations.

“Before the turn of the century,” says Michael Tsur, an international high-crisis negotiator, “we were kings.  We ruled the world from our desktops. With the flick of a finger we could gather mountains of data to argue against our opponents, learn their secrets, access their worth. We were tough,we were in charge, we were aggressive.”

But Tsur, who has negotiated hundreds of high profile, complex business disputes, says that doesn’t work anymore.

 “Our great mistake was that we failed to see how that world had changed. In a world dominated now by terrorism, fear and mistrust, this combative mindset simply created more fear and more chaos.” 

Tsur has a map on his webpage marking, in miniature flames, the terror spots around the world.  The map looks like a birthday cake on fire. “We don’t know where the next incident is coming from,” he says, “But we are sure that there will be one. In such an atmosphere we can’t go back to the old style of combative negotiations. We need to build trust before we negotiate.” 

Tsur believes that the four most important elements in building trust in high risk negotiations are attention to Participants, Atmosphere, Timing, and Place.  He calls these his Rules of Engagement.

“These rules of engagement make sure that you won’t need to open
fire ... because when you open fire, you lose.” 

Tsur is adamant on this point. From his experience as a high risk negotiator in business, with terrorist encounters, with guerillas in warfare, he states flatly, “I never saw anyone win in a war; I’ve only seen people, countries and businesses lose less.


“The first thing we have to do is step out from behind our machines and go back to simple face-to-face communication.

“Before we even begin a negotiation, we make sure that the person is engaged. And we do that by getting into the person’s head.  Instead of being rigidly in charge, we act in a positive and respectful manner toward them.”

Then, work on the following:
  • Identify and deal with resistance.
  • Put technology in the background and the person up front.
  • Know that the bigger the crisis, the more you need to be involved.  If there are too many energies in the room, even a sneeze at the wrong time may offend someone. Sometimes too many energies is like a cartload of miscellaneous information disseminated by a fan. It needs to be channeled, contained, but in such a way that no one feels overridden or dismissed.
  • Make sure that you are talking to the right person, the one who can deliver results -- and this may not be the obvious person in authority. Your very best bet is to get one-on-one with the people who have the best personalities.  This quality is essential for creating the trust that you need. 

In a chaotic reality, things can change in a second, so the negotiation process needs to be carefully nurtured.  For instance, says Tsur, the survivors of a disaster are given attention to their needs and empathy toward their situation. Nurturing is a very practical gesture that helps them increase their emotional resources so that they can function in the crisis.

Contrary to the old adage of “We’re a business: we deal in facts, not feelings,” nurturing is a vital tool that helps parties relax, trust and keep their ability to plan ahead. This is crucial, since people in survival mode often cannot plan for their future and make appropriate decisions – precisely the things that are needed in business.

"So it is absolutely necessary to remove fear and confusion from the equation."

Since even day-to-day negotiations routinely go into crisis mode, it doesn't take much for participants to lose this ability.  So it is absolutely necessary to remove fear and confusion from the equation. Any crisis negotiator will tell you that without this first step, a second one is rarely taken.

But it is not enough says Tsur, to be nice. One must be aware, and here the task is to not control, but to learn. The appropriate tool for this is the question: “What is important right now, at this moment?”

If one or more of the parties is in survival mode, it can be a big mistake to march in followed by boxes of data and proof. Instead, says Tsur, collect data right now, on site, as it is happening, because what you remember from that last meeting may be irrelevant today. In this the new chaotic reality, information comes in fast, and what you remember from your last meeting may be irrelevant at this one.


People are very sensitive to the time of day; whether it is morning, noon or evening can significantly affect their responses. Find out at what time will the person feel most comfortable?  On the weekend, at the beginning of week? Are they morning people? If they stay late in the evening will that affect their receptivity?

Tsur is part psychologist and analyst with an eye for the signals sent by the smallest detail. “I try to see for instance, what people choose to eat at lunch.  If the person is having just a regular lunch, he is probably relaxed and in a good frame for talking.  If she is ordering only soup and water, this may indicate stress, which will interfere with your negotiations.”

And if you are dealing with managers, for example, avoid meeting first thing in the morning.  This is the time when they have to deal with the unexpected.  For them, the most effective time is between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Because physical details can play a critical part in business negotiations, it is important to engage in a positive way by paying attention even to the smallest things, such as the temperature and lighting of the room, or even the type of clothes you are wearing.  Do you want to appear comfortable and at ease; do you want your clothing to signal the importance of the occasion?  What about the meeting table: is it round or square with sharp edges? Will you be standing or sitting? What is the temperature in the room? Do you offer them something to drink and put them at ease? Do you shake hands or not?

Look at the person’s background, their expectations, any signals of ease of discomfort … the more they are at ease in their surroundings, the better your negotiations will go.


Place signals territory, and it is almost a mandate that most neutrals, given the choice, would opt for a mutually equal space.  But if you are a manager, says Tsur, dealing with a very high risk situation, Place suddenly becomes an even more critical element in your negotiations. 

“Choose humility,” says Tsur. “Even if you are a big shot, you fly over to the other person’s office.  The gesture says, ‘I am confident enough in myself to make this gesture.’ Giving the opposite party the turf is modesty: it signals respect. 

“This single action appears to be simply a matter of logistics: ‘Where shall we meet?’ But it is far more than that. Not only does it begin the negotiations with an expectation of respect, but it also follows an important psychological principle: when people are on their home turf they are less protective of themselves, less cynical, and less guarded.”
Humility, not as a virtue, but as a strategy.

Tsur believes that today you can’t create a good negotiation unless you bring these soft skills to the table.  If knowledge is power, the great choice may be power over or power with; to build or to battle; to win or to lose less. 

About Michael Tsur: 
Michael Tsur is a lawyer, and an expert in negotiation, conflict resolution, crisis management and mediation. He specializes in executive
coaching of general managers, general directors and owners of companies in
Israel and around the globe, working in particular on how to navigate
complex negotiations and situations. Founder and general-director of the
Mediation & Conflict Resolution Institute-Jerusalem, he is also an
associate director at Consensus, a New York-based consultancy specializing
in negotiation, conflict resolution and peace-building. He has expertise
in resolving a wide variety of emergency situations - ranging from
hostage crises to breakdowns in cross-national business negotiations to
stand-offs with individuals who are mentally unstable - and has been a
member of the Israel Defense Forces Hostage Negotiation team since 2000.