I’m reading The Berlin Airlift to learn about postwar Europe and operational excellence. Unexpected bonus: a master-class in negotiating tactics from Josef Vissarionovich a.k.a. Stalin.

In hindsight Stalin was a bad dude but Roosevelt arrived with an open mind; the American-British relationship was strained by lend-lease, the tremendous cost of the war to both parties, and each leader’s belief that the other wasn’t pulling his weight.

Churchill, an old hand at spotting geopolitical threats, had no illusions about Stalin, but he was tired. He and Roosevelt couldn’t form a united front.

These meetings fascinate me because my career increasingly depends on winning arguments. I’ve seen all these tactics used in person (albeit on a smaller scale).

  1. Control the agenda
  2. Don’t lose momentum of action when you sit down
  3. Be inconsistent and unfair
  4. Implementation is half the battle
  5. Be the agent of chaos
  6. Defense against the dark arts

Control the agenda

Know why the other person has deigned to come to the table and beat them over the head with it. Stalin had held up the Eastern Front, Washington had run a PR campaign to portray him as ‘Uncle Joe’ and couldn’t easily reverse itself, there were divisions between the US and UK, and the western nations were eager to put war behind them.

Use these underlying power dynamics to control the agenda – you’ll get more mileage fighting to avoid talking about a topic than arguing the individual points. Details are always rational, but when opposing a whole topic you can bring your emotions to bear.

Choose the venue if you can. Stalin pled ill health to avoid traveling; Roosevelt was probably sicker and had to travel all the way to Ukraine.

If you’re on the receiving end of this, the best you can do is agree on topics beforehand. If you don’t know the issues well enough to map them out, try adopting a deliberative rule set like Robert’s Rules of Order which provides for adding to the agenda.

Don’t lose momentum of action when you sit down

Don’t honor any truce or ceasefire until you’re forced to. You know the line ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’? Continue those other means subtly, with deniability, while you’re sitting down to parlay.

Strive to be the party who benefits from delay. Across Europe, Soviet agents were infiltrating parties and influencing elections, shifting the balance of power in Stalin’s favor.

In Germany, Stalin’s troops were dismantling factories and shipping them back to Russia. Apparently they had no luck reassembling them but the loss of productive capacity contributed to the slow recovery of occupied Germany’s economy.

Be inconsistent and unfair

Create high level plans that are predicated on fairness and then fight tooth and nail for a division of assets that gives you the advantage. Stalin demanded cash reparations from Germany as a necessary measure that would benefit all the occupying nations equally, then stripped all the material wealth & industry from the Soviet-managed districts even as the UK & US were investing heavily in theirs to raise the quality of life.

Stalin also had the ability to play good cop bad cop with Molotov, his foreign minister. Stalin could chat amiably with Roosevelt about abstracts while Molotov held firm on the details. Untangling this takes energy.

I’ve only been successful against inconsistency when I came in with a mastery of the details. Even a fair counterparty will take you for a ride if you rely on them for any information. Do your homework.

Implementation is half the battle

The Soviets fought tooth and nail to limit the number of routes by which the Allies could access Berlin, and then would arbitrarily refuse free access to even those routes.

If you can’t remove an onerous term from the deal, invent reasons to fight against terms that will permit your counterparty to monitor or enforce the term.

Even when you’re negotiating with a fair counterparty, shit happens. Responsible negotiators condition consideration on performance.

Be the agent of chaos

Stalin thought the capitalist nations would turn on each other within a decade and the winner would attack Russia. The division of Europe was a temporary measure to let the Soviets recharge their arms & population and prepare for the big one, but he was willing to start now if necessary and the others knew it.

If you’ve ever been an A student in a group project with a C student (or vice versa), you know this game. Be realistic; some behavior can’t be modified. If you forget this you’ll both drown.

If your counterparty has a much higher tolerance for chaos than you, you should find out their real priorities and move the negotiation there. For Stalin, it was his domestic power first and second providing a shield of client countries between him and the capitalist west.

Defense against the dark arts

Most of these tactics aren’t great in the long term because successful negotiations yield their value in repeat business, and that requires trust. Nobody wants to sit down with Stalin twice. Eventually the western nations stopped dealing with him.

That said, just because you want to play fair doesn’t mean you should give your power away. And we need to understand this stuff so we don’t fall victim to it.

Sometimes the solution is as easy as naming the bad tactic, saying how it compromises your interests, and asking to ban it going forward. Other times you have to identify a bad deal or bad counterparty and walk away.

Having trouble imagining your mostly amiable counterparty, whom you want to do business with, as a dangerous opponent? Imagine Stalin sitting across the table from you. He was mostly amiable, too, until he wasn’t. Carefully navigate the difference between a partner with aligned incentives and an adversary whose interests will lead them astray.

Whenever possible, come armed with objective facts.