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negotiating life

The Lion and the Lamb

Do the strong always devour the weak?

At a conference of university presidents on the Tufts Talloires campus several years ago, the late psychology professor Jeffrey Rubin and I made a presentation on the importance of negotiation as an academic subject. We argued, among other things, that a mastery of negotiation techniques would help Third World officials and executives improve their dealings with industrialized countries and multinational corporations. The head of one of India’s largest universities dismissed our argument, saying, “A negotiation between the weak and the strong is a dialogue between the lamb and the lion—the lamb always gets eaten.”

Our exchange highlighted an issue arising in many discussions of negotiation: the problem of power. Aren’t the results of any negotiation determined by the two sides’ relative resources? Doesn’t the lion always eat the lamb, and the industrialized country always trump the developing country? Not necessarily. At the negotiation table, power is simply the ability to influence the other side’s decisions in a desired way. A party’s physical resources may indeed influence the other side’s decisions. But often, less tangible factors—a strong relationship, an original idea, or a reputation for honesty—may also be sources of influence and therefore of negotiating power.

Rubin and I later undertook a research project to learn how small countries negotiated with large ones. After examining numerous cases, we noticed that some small countries did surprisingly well. We then studied their negotiating strategies and tactics. Here are five of the lambs’ more common power tools—all of them applicable to our daily dealings, not just to international diplomacy:

Build relationships with appropriate third parties. Power is who your friends are. One of the most effective ways to increase your power in a negotiation is to build supportive relationships with a strong third party who may be willing to intervene on your side. Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat—unlike his predecessor, President Nasser—consistently built relations with the United States as a way to influence Israel, a strategy that led to the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Similarly, small countries form coalitions with like-minded countries to increase their influence in multilateral forums like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.

Develop alternatives away from the table. Another way to increase negotiating power at the bargaining table is to keep doors open elsewhere. A party may ultimately opt to make a deal with somebody else instead of with the party of the moment—or may threaten to do so as leverage to persuade the other side to improve its terms. Throughout the Cold War, small states in their negotiations with one of the superpowers often made or threatened to make alternative deals with the other superpower.

Linkage. The weaker party can merge seemingly isolated issues into a single transaction to increase its influence with the other side. Often the linkage is unstated, but clearly understood. When the United States seeks foreign basing rights, for example, small countries will use that occasion to obtain trade advantages in the American market.

Take the initiative. Often, weak parties are paralyzed by a sense of impotence. Small countries that took the initiative in their negotiations did better than those that waited for the stronger side to name its terms. By making proposals to which the other side has to respond, the weaker party can influence the course of negotiations.

Divide and conquer. A large country or company usually has many interests, relationships, and constituencies to manage. This can create opportunities for the weaker side. Thus, small countries with large ethnic representation in the United States use that connection to their advantage in negotiating with the U.S. government.

At one time or another, all of us are lambs dealing with lions. The wise use of some of these power tools may allow you to walk away with your skin intact.

JESWALD W. SALACUSE is the Henry J. Braker Professor of Law and former dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts. His most recent book is The Law of Investment Treaties (Oxford University Press).

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