How to Talk to a Dictator, by Bill Richardson

Photograph by Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Businessweek

Remember, when you’re dealing with a dictator, you can get a quicker, more favorable decision than you can in a democracy. It’s important when you negotiate with a dictator that you connect personally. You don’t negotiate by sending e-mails or letters. It’s person-to-person diplomacy. Often the key is to find out what they really need rather than what they say they want. You have to learn what their current moods are, who they’re having an affair with, who they are threatened by, and what you think they want out of the negotiation with you. Don’t get emotional.

When I was negotiating with Saddam Hussein, I let him vent about the injustices that he felt the U.S. had played on Iraq. And then, after listening, I said, “You know, Mr. President, I’m not here to discuss the U.S.-Iraqi relationship. I just want the two Americans who are imprisoned [William Barloon and David Daliberti, released into Richardson’s custody in July 1995]. You’re not going to get an improvement in the relationship with the U.S., but you’ll get praise for a humanitarian gesture.”

You have to let the other side save face. Humor is often very effective. With the Sudanese, I said, “So, Mr. President, this guy that I’m still trying to get out of jail, does he still have his fingernails?” A little levity is important. —As told to Kent Black

Richardson is the former governor of New Mexico. His book, How to Sweet Talk a Shark: Strategies and Stories From a Master Negotiator, will be published in the fall.  

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