Lessons that work in war and life

by Rich Cohen

When I was 12, playing Risk, “the game of world conquest,” my father and opponent, Herb Cohen, who’d recently published his bestselling book “You Can Negotiate Anything,” taught me a lesson about deal-making I’ve never forgotten.

My troops were clustered in Ukraine and southern Europe. Surrounded and outnumbered, I asked what I could offer him to call off the attack. He looked at the board, looked at me, then said, “Your Snickers bar.”

“My Snickers bar?” (I’d been saving a Snickers bar.) “But that’s not part of the game.”

“Lesson one,” he said. “Everything is part of the game.”

The old man had credentials that made his thoughts on war and peace worth listening to. He’d trained agents at the FBI and CIA in the art of negotiation, advised Jimmy Carter during the Iran hostage crisis and represented the Reagan administration at the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks. He’d helped settle an NFL players strike and a New Orleans police strike. But no matter what sort of imbroglio he was settling or deal he was closing, he followed a few principles, chief among them being “act different” and “have fun.”

“Approach life as if it were a game,” he told me. “Be ready to walk away. Don’t get fixated on a particular outcome. The key is to care, but not that much.

“Never negotiate for yourself,” he went on. “You care too much, get emotionally involved and screw up.”

I think of his lessons whenever I read the headlines. The art he practiced, which depended on patience, the slow reply to the urgent question — use time, boredom and silence to your benefit — has been increasingly forgotten in an age of urgent texting and lightning response, where a minute feels like an eternity. “A key to success is learning to live with ambiguity,” he said. “The price you pay for ambiguity is anxiety, the discomfort of not knowing. If you’re willing to live with that anxiety, you will do well. If not, not.”

If we can relearn that art of negotiation, the ritual of give and take, we will see some of our current problems in a different way and find novel solutions. With that in mind, here are a few of the rules my father counseled.

○ Win-Win. My father popularized this phrase. He’d repurposed it from the world of game theory, which he’d been teaching at the University of Michigan in the 1960s. Four outcomes were possible in a game: Lose-Lose, Lose-Win, Win-Lose, Win-Win. He plucked Win-Win from the list and turned it not only into an option but a philosophy, a worldview and goal. To him, Win-Win is the only path to long-term success. If I Win and you Lose, I feel triumphant, but I have not solved the problem. I have instead sown the seeds for the next round of conflict. The French won the First World War. The Germans lost. But that was not the end of the story.

Another tenet of the philosophy: Don’t humiliate the enemy. You might rightfully loathe him, but, if the goal is to solve the problem, as opposed to, say, serving justice, a thing that does not exist outside of heaven, you have to give him a way out and let him save face. At the start of the Ukraine war, the West seemed to want to make a deal with Vladimir Putin. Perhaps along the lines of Ukraine staying out of NATO, and the Donbas would decide its fate in a plebiscite. Now, however, there is talk not just of pushing Russia out of Ukraine entirely, but weakening or unseating Putin, which would probably cause him to strike out in unpredictable ways, possibly turning the situation into a Lose-Lose.

○ Ambiguity. Be patient. Use time. The reply of no reply. The answer of no answer. The biggest pressures on Putin are not external but internal — give them time to work, let him stew in his own pot, which might soften him more than anything we can do. This is ancient wisdom. In the folklore, there’s a story about a Russian rabbi who’s been ordered by the czar to teach a parrot to speak Latin within one year. When the rabbi’s wife, in a panic, says, “How are you going to do that? You don’t even know Latin,” the rabbi calms her, saying, “Look, a year is a long time. A lot can happen in a year. For one thing, I might die. For another, the czar might die. Or third, the parrot might die.”

When my father published his book in 1980, negotiation was seen as disreputable, something akin to haggling. But to him, learning to negotiate was just a matter of learning how to do intentionally what you did naturally, if ineffectively. It was about starting with a basic truth — all these same people will still be here tomorrow and we will still have to live with them — and working your way back from there.

We live in interesting, chaotic, troubled times. It’s the feeling of impotence that comes at such times, of being at the mercy of events, that makes people despair. My father’s mission was to alleviate this despair by convincing people that they always have agency, a choice, that there is always a move to be made, even if it isn’t on the list. In short, don’t limit yourself to the standard options. The Snickers bar is there. You just have to look for it.

Rich Cohen is the author, most recently, of “The Adventures of Herbie Cohen: World’s Greatest Negotiator.”