THE BLOG
10/23/2013 02:47 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2013

Baseballs for Hugo Chavez: All in a Day's Work for Bill Richardson

Ever sat across the table from a dictator? How would you get him to give up his bargaining chips? Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson stopped by the Commonwealth Club last week for a conversation with Michigan's former governor, Jennifer Granholm. Richardson, who recently authored the book How to Sweet Talk a Shark: Strategies and Stories from a Master Negotiator, told stories of his negotiations with Hugo Chavez, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, the Taliban, and of his visit to North Korea. In sharing his stories, he had a few pieces of advice that negotiators should keep in mind.

  • "Candor is very important." When talking with Omar al-Bashir of Sudan to negotiate the release of freelance National Geographic journalist Paul Salopek, his translator, and driver, Richardson remembered that al-Bashir asked him, "What do I get out of this?" Richardson said that he told the president that there was no return in this for him except to get the international media attention away from this situation. Al-Bashir agreed to release Salopek but wasn't ready to negotiate the release of the two Chadians. To that, Richardson said, "Mr. President, you and I are politicians. We run in elections...how can I go back with a white guy and I leave the two black guys behind?" Richardson recounts that after hearing this, al-Bashir "looked at me and he exploded laughing." Then he said, "OK, you got 'em all."
  • Establish a personal connection, and use humor if it works. Richardson recounted bringing a signed baseball for his visit with Hugo Chavez when he went to talk about negotiating a release of hostages held by FARC.
  • "When you're in negotiations, don't lose your cool. Don't get ticked off." Not an extraordinary lesson, but one that Richardson learned the hard way. During his negotiations in Cuba for the release of Alan Gross, a U.S. contractor jailed by Cuba, Richardson talked to the media after failed talks. According to the New York Times, Gross was charged with "crimes against the state for delivering banned equipment as part of a semicovert program aimed at weakening the Cuban government." The Cuban government did not welcome Richardson's comments, and the negotiator left Cuba without being allowed to meet with Gross. In his conversation, Richardson noted that his mistake was talking to the media at a time when he was emotionally wound up after unsuccessful talks with the Cuban government.

In addition to his tips on negotiating, Richardson also had advice for President Obama, after seeing the government shutdown and last-minute deal making in Washington. Richardson said, "I would directly engage [with Congress] and I would try to keep these negotiations in one locale: the White House." Richardson went on to add, "I would lead the negotiation and I would expand the agenda -- only the President can do that."

There is at least one person who disagrees with Richardson on direct engagement with Congress. Alan Auerbach, professor of economics and law at UC Berkeley, weighed in during a town hall discussion last week about the government shutdown. In his opinion, "[President Obama] took a fairly limited role this time and it worked out fairly well." Auerbach noted that President Obama had learned his lesson from the talks in 2011 that narrowly averted a government shutdown. The Atlantic reported, "In 2011, high-profile negotiations with Boehner, which failed, hurt Obama's ability to advance his agenda, advisors concluded." Auerbach added that this time, "[President Obama] was in a really difficult situation. There wasn't really much he could do."

Negotiations, or lack of negotiations, have also been an issue for the San Francisco Bay Area, as we saw in stalled conversations between BART and its employees, which led to the recently ended BART strike. When asked how these negotiations should be handled, Richardson conceded that he wasn't fully apprised of the situation. But he added that sometimes out-of-the-box diplomacy is the best option and suggested that perhaps what BART and the unions need is a new mediator. Richardson's suggestions? A local politician, a citizen's group, or even an academic group.

What do you think? What makes an effective negotiator? Share your thoughts below.