The Kremlin guide to negotiation

Soviet diplomats developed sophisticated methods of getting what they wanted. Here's a selection.

by Igor Ryzov
Last Updated: 07 Jan 2020

The Kremlin school of negotiation reportedly has its origins in the early days of the Soviet Union, when its diplomats were forced to face up to a world overwhelmingly hostile to its agenda. 

It is, as Russian author Igor Ryzov describes in his book The Kremlin School of Negotiation (Canongate; trans. Alex Fleming), a particularly tough and at times brutal school of getting what you want, perhaps best suited to transactional deals rather than long-term relationships.

In this edited extract from his book, Ryzov explain the five key tenets or postulates that underpin the method.


Postulate 1: keep quiet and listen attentively to what your opponent says 

Keep quiet and listen. What’s so tough – so brutal – about this, you ask? At first glance, nothing at all. But let’s take a closer look. What happens when your opponent stays quiet and listens to you? You talk. You toss ‘breadcrumbs’, unwittingly giving away unnecessary information, answering questions no one asked. Anyone who works in procurement will have mastered this ploy and will already know just how effective it is. 

When we listen, we win our opponent’s favour. We make it clear that we are interested in what they have to say. And when a person sees their opponent show a genuine interest in what they have to say, it is only natural for them to start to reveal more, because they want to be as useful as they can. 

Postulate 2: ask questions 

The negotiator listens. Then they ask questions. In doing so, they can steer the conversation as their own interests dictate. Negotiators who find themselves listened to and asked questions will often take the bait and talk more; offer more. 

This is a key moment in any negotiation, when the first roles are assigned: namely, those of ‘host’ and ‘guest’. The ‘host’ is the one who asks the questions; the ‘guest’ is the one who answers them. The ‘host’ enquires; the ‘guest’ offers. You offer me something, and I’ll choose if I want it. 

The opponent thinks that because they are doing all the talking, they must be running the show. They equate talking with leading. Not so. The person controlling the conversation is the one asking the questions; the one listening. 

 You must fight for the role of ‘host’. If you feel you’re being asked more questions than strictly necessary, know that with every question asked you are being drawn further from your goal. So you must break this chain and seize back the initiative through counter-questions.

Postulate 3: impose a scale of values or ‘depreciate’ 

Next, whoever is playing ‘host’ will start to introduce their own value system and the state of play changes completely. This is because the party in the role of ‘host’ can now raise up or pull down the ‘guest’ at will, based on their own values. 

Anyone who has worked in sales will probably have experienced the following situation more than once. 

A buyer well-versed in negotiation methods takes a look at your proposal, tosses it to one side and asks: ‘So, what, you think you’re unique? You think I can’t get this anywhere else?’ As intended, these comments will start to make you feel that bit smaller. 

In another example, a boss says to his subordinate: ‘What, you think you’re a star or something? That you’re the only one who can do this?’ 

Postulate 4: ‘roll out the red carpet’ 

When a ‘depreciation’ like this puts someone in a subordinate role, it is only natural for them to feel uncomfortable in that position – which means they will do anything they can to get out of it. This is when a tough professional negotiator will make use of the play we call ‘rolling out the red carpet’.  

A person who feels backed up against a wall has two options: they can either make a desperate attempt at resistance, or simply do nothing and let themselves be crushed. 

Truth be told, none of these options leads to great results for either party. To make matters worse, what they do lead to is a sense of pressure or manipulation. This is where the play described above comes in handy. If you can show the person backed up against a wall a possible way out; if you can bring it out as an opportunity for ‘victory’ while saving face, then the outcome will change quite markedly. 

This is why it is always worth preparing two techniques prior to negotiations: one that will give you the upper hand, and another that will let your opponent lose while still saving face. Should the latter come to pass, when your opponent is backed up against a wall you need to know how to roll out the red carpet for them to walk down, wilfully choosing their own defeat. Only then will they be satisfied with the outcome of the negotiations. 

Postulate 5: put the opponent in the zone of uncertainty 

‘I’m not sure how my management will react to your refusal’

‘I don’t know if it’ll be possible to bring you into our distribution network.’ 

It’s hard to put in words what happens in a seller’s mind when they hear this. You see, the seller has already been picturing all of the upsides of this deal, and the knock-on effect it will have for their business. Faced with uncertainty, who wouldn’t start to ask, beg, even plead – whatever it takes to coax out another chance? Who wouldn’t promise their opponent all imaginable (and unimaginable) bonuses or agree to any number of concessions? 

Why does this happen? Fear gets a hold on us. Fear is a most powerful weapon. 

Fear can also be described as a state of over-motivation, of ‘need’. When a person can’t take a step back and soberly evaluate the current situation, their brain starts to see all manner of negative consequences. As a result, they latch onto any bones they are thrown. 

Copyright Igor Ryzov. Republished with kind permission of Canongate

Image credit: Marina Lystseva\TASS via Getty Images

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