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Bill Richardson: "Find the Common Thread"

By David Liss The diplomatic world has a wise, old saying that goes like this: "It is a good and fair settlement when neither party likes the outcome but each agrees to it." Getting individuals or groups with different agendas to that point often requires a third party -- an effective negotiator who acts as an intermediary, helping each side understand the need for compromise.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, 56, has a long and successful history playing just that role. As a congressman, Energy Secretary from 1998-2001 during the Clinton Administration, and as U.N. Ambassador from 1997-98, Richardson has helped resolve potential flash points from Baghdad to Santa Fe. He has sat across the table from both former Iraq leader Saddam Hussein and Cuban President Fidel Castro.

This past January, a mere 16 days after Richardson assumed office as governor of New Mexico, North Korea asked him to act as an intermediary with regard to U.S. demands for nuclear missile disarmament. Richardson had negotiated with the North Koreans three times before -- first as a congressman in 1994, when he secured the release of a downed American pilot in North Korea.

As governor, Richardson says he has been called upon to resolve differences on legislation and to recommend solutions between labor, business, and environmental groups. He believes the same skills and strategy apply whether one is mediating among business groups, countries, or in personal situations.

Among his rules for negotiating: Be frank about your role, strive to learn the bargaining strategies of all parties, determine the talks' goals and objectives before the meeting, and learn as much as you can about the other side from those who have dealt previously with the parties you will be dealing with.

I spoke recently with Governor Richardson by phone about the keys to successful negotiation in any situation. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:

Q: What happened when the North Koreans approached you on January 1, 2003, as you became governor of New Mexico? What was your response to this very unusual, delicate situation?

A: I let the White House know that I had been approached directly by the North Koreans. They had been frustrated by earlier contacts with the Bush Administration. I made it clear to all parties that I wasn't serving as a spokesman or an envoy for the Administration, but that I would listen to the North Koreans' positions and relay them through official White House channels. I briefed Secretary [of State Colin] Powell daily.

Q: You say it's important to know as much as possible about the people you'll be negotiating with. How did this apply to the North Koreans?

A: I have been to North Korea three times. They feel comfortable with old players that they know. It's important to understand that North Koreans live in an isolated society. They rely on bluster and threats to advance their cause. They believe that by alarming and heightening a crisis, they can gain more concessions.

This is their negotiating culture, [but, as in all cases] you have to find a common thread to negotiate from. Sometimes they're more concerned about process than substance. They want to be treated as a major power and get upset if they feel that they're not being treated in a manner consistent with how they perceive themselves.

Q: What mistakes do people typically make in trying to intervene in conflicts, whether of a political, personal, or business nature?

A: You can't expect immediate results in early meetings. No matter what, you have to put your personal likes and dislikes out of the way. Don't let emotions get involved in determining a final outcome. And finally, it's a mistake to underestimate your adversaries. Never assume the outcome you think your opponents want is the one they actually do.

Q: What else should people remember?

A: You have to have firm positions coupled with a willingness to be flexible in the end. You have to be able to walk out of a room at a strategic point during discussions.

Q: What are the specific steps you take in getting negotiations going?

A: I believe in creating task forces -- stakeholder groups with opposing points of view -- to come to a solution. I've used this method as governor to bring consensus between business, unions, environmental groups, and other parties for tax cuts, educational reform, and health-care improvements.

In creating task forces, make sure that all points of view are represented, and let the task forces know that they have deadlines. I meet periodically with these task forces to monitor their progress and [when necessary] highlight the bully pulpit of the governor's office. I ask task-force members to develop a consensus for legislation [or other recommended actions].

In a business setting you would apply the same formula. You would bring all affected parties together and set parameters. You have to get parties to [agree] that the final work product will be policy and that there will be a solution.

You have to make it clear to all parties that if they don't work it out, then you will impose your own solution.

Q: Though there are clearly similarities to diplomatic and business situations, what are some aspects unique to the latter?

A: The business community is becoming more pragmatic, less "my way or the highway." Their leaders are starting to learn that they can get more results to their liking and avoid litigation through negotiating.

The business community must realize that to build allies it needs to participate in public-private partnerships with state or local government and engage in philanthropic activities -- not just to do good, but to build relationships for cooperative long-term advantages.

Q: What do you do when you reach an impasse in negotiations -- and not just a bump in the road?

A: You know you have reached an impasse when it appears that [one side] feels that no solution is better than [any] solution that has been offered. That's when you have to make procedural adjustments -- but at the same time, stick to your principles and your ultimate policy objectives.

Q: How do you measure success in negotiations?

A: As governor, I measure success by legislation passing. In business, you measure success through the start of what appears to be a good partnership -- with another company, a successful merger, or a new strategic investment. A major benefit of the kinds of cooperative processes that I use is that you build alliances. You [establish] trust and credibility for future battles. That enables you to be more successful in the long run.

In a business context, you have to be sure that you don't damage yourself from a public relations standpoint or give out proprietary information that could come back to bite you later. You have to show results because business is so results-oriented. Liss is a contributing correspondent for BusinessWeek Online. His background includes six years as a management consultant and as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill. He has a master's degree in public administration from Columbia University

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