The Kremlin School of Negotiation
“Better ten years of negotiation than one day of war.” - Andrei Andreyevich Gromyko, Soviet Foreign Minister (1957 - 1985)
I have a book on my bookshelf which I dip into from time to time called The Kremlin School of Negotiation. It documents an approach to negotiation supposedly developed by the Soviet government in Stalin’s time, and still used today. It is fascinating, and quite unlike any other book on negotiation you have ever read.
I find it fascinating for two reasons: the negotiation framework is itself interesting, but so are the intriguing glimpses of Russian culture which slip out from the examples the author uses. The book is full of casual references to corruption and bribery, in the same way that a western book might use examples involving, say, royalties or discounts. Interwoven with quotes from Tolstoy, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.
Here’s the framework:
Step 1: “Listen”. Nothing new there, you might think. But while a western book about negotiation might encourage you to listen so that you can really understand the other side’s point of view, our Kremlin school negotiator is listening attentively for different reasons. Firstly, to see if their opponent will fill the silence with information they did not intend to reveal. They are listening attentively not because they are interested to hear your concerns and understand your point of view. They are listening in the hope that you will make a mistake and weaken your position. Secondly, sitting quietly, like a mafia don, allows them to prepare the ground for seizing the initiative in stage 2.
Step 2 is to “ask questions”. Again, this might sound like negotiation 101. “Ask questions to understand what’s really important to the other side” etc. But our Kremlin negotiator is not asking questions because he is interested in your answers, but to establish control over the situation. They want to position themselves as the “host” with you as the “guest”. You might think that, by doing most of the talking, you are taking the lead and controlling the conversation. But the person who listens and asks probing questions is really the one setting the agenda. Who controls the flow of a political interview? The journalist, the one asking the questions. Same with a job interview. And same with a negotiation.
Step 3. Now it gets really brutal. Having quietly established control over the interaction, the next step is for our Kremlin negotiator to disparage their opponent. I’ll be honest, I think something gets lost in translation here. The English translation uses the word ‘depreciate’, in the sense of ‘disparage’, but the translation of this section leaves a feeling that the English is missing something from the original Russian.
The examples are very clear, though: as a boss, you should speak patronisingly to your subordinate. As a buyer, you should toss aside the sales proposal and tell the sales rep you will look elsewhere. And so on.
Whatever nuances might have been lost in the translation, this does feel like the point where this framework just doesn’t translate into western culture at all. At the very least, following this guidance in a professional negotiation in the west would lead to unpredictable consequences.
Step 4: If their opponent is still in the room after step three, our Kremlin negotiator will move onto step 4: “Roll out the red carpet”. This will be familiar to readers from Sun Tzu’s “build a golden bridge across which your enemy can retreat”. Give your opponent an honourable path to escape the unpleasantness you are now subjecting them to. Let them choose to accept defeat while saving face.
Step 5: According to the author, the first four steps, if executed effectively, will be enough to prevail in 90% of situations. But, if needed, our Kremlin negotiator will go into full gangster mode in step 5. He will issue a veiled threat of unspecified dire consequences if you don’t take the deal on the table. The author actually uses the example of a mafioso running a protection racket to illustrate this approach. The racketeer doesn’t tell the shopkeeper that his shop will be ransacked if he doesn’t pay. It is left unsaid, so the shopkeeper fears the worst and pays up.
Again, we have left our safe and familiar world far behind. Many negotiators would do the exact opposite of this: they would want their opponent to be fully aware of the consequences of not reaching agreement. This is a key part of my work as a mediator: making sure each side understands what is likely to happen if they don’t settle and comparing that outcome to what is on offer as a settlement. Our man from the Kremlin isn’t having any of that. He’s going to sow the seeds of fear and uncertainty to make you take the deal on the table. The alternative is left deliberately vague such that the settlement on offer seems all the more attractive.
The author is a professional negotiation trainer. I’m sure his framework works very well. In Russia. I think the situations where it would work well in other cultures would be rare.
The description of the framework only occupies the first 10% of the book, though. The rest consists of lots of detailed advice on handling particular types of situations. And it is all much more nuanced and sophisticated than you might expect from the gangsterish tone of the book’s opening pages. In fact, much of the rest of the book seems quite at odds with the framework outlined at the start. This may be due to the nuances of translation: perhaps the English translation is casting the framework in a harsher light than it should be. Or that Russia is a different place, with different norms and expectations. What appears to us to be an outlandishly rude and aggressive exchange may not seem that way at all to the two Russians involved in the exchange.
As the book progresses, we learn that our Kremlin man actually values courtesy and respect above all else. He will counter a belligerent opponent with polite, calm professionalism. He sees a negotiation as just one step in an ongoing relationship, so the negotiation needs to preserve the relationship, not just get the best outcome on the day. He will try to turn battle into cooperation. And so on.
The contradictory messages in the book leave me baffled as to the true nature of Russian professional culture, but the window it provides is nevertheless intriguing. Highly recommended. Available on Amazon.
(A footnote: I wrote this post in September 2022, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I am not intending to make any point about that war with this post, other than perhaps to point out that there used to be a tradition of careful, thoughtful negotiation amongst Russian leaders, still followed by Russian business people, but apparently cast aside by the current regime leadership. Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.)