Introduction: The Coin
The coin shimmered.
It sat in the middle of my open palm as I stood sweating in a hidden-away jungle retreat south of Manila. The rules of the game were straightforward. To claim this golden coin, all I had to do was clench my outstretched fingers into a fist as soon as the elderly Filipino priest in front of me made the slightest move to grab it. If I defended the coin, it was mine. He faced me, his eyes serene and twinkling, his large palm open, hovering just under my hand where the coin lay exposed.
“So, Mr. Pete Johnston, who holds the power here?” he asked with a warm smile. I laughed. Our Harvard-based team had spent a week in the Philippines working with senior government officials on extreme power struggles and related negotiation challenges that had plagued their nation for years. This respected local man of the cloth participated in some of our highly confidential, closed-door sessions. He knew his question was relevant.
“Father, I only have to close my hand. You must bring yours all the way from underneath mine so you can grab the coin before my fingers defend it.”
“And so?” he asked again. “The power is mine,” I answered. He continued to smile. “So it would seem,” he confirmed.
We began the game, our eyes leveled at one another as I stayed on the lookout for the first hint of movement from his hand. A minute later, the coin disappeared from my palm, and somehow ended up in his. Baffled, I insisted we play again. How could I have missed seeing his hand coming? He’d lucked out. I gave my head a shake. Now I was really going to be on my guard. The power was mine, and soon the coin would be too.
The coin disappeared from my palm again. And again, and again, and again. I watched helplessly as this ageing priest kept snatching it with apparent ease.
Mercifully, he suggested we sit down. When we’d finished chuckling, I listened as he spoke in quiet tones, explaining his game to me, a game he said was as old as Asia itself.
The game’s secrets were deceptively simple. He approached me knowing I’d had a long day and would be tired. He had me play a game I wasn’t familiar with, but one he knew well. He put me in a defensive role—he’d be the one deciding when to attack. He focused on the coin alone, centering himself both mentally and physically right over it. He led me to believe I held all the power, falsely anchoring my expectations. He didn’t rush in. He waited patiently until the time was right, when I blinked or my mind strayed. Lastly, he did not go after the coin. As the attacker, his strategy was to go after the plump flesh surrounding his target, quickly pressing down with his fingers as they encircled the coin. The downward pressure popped the coin up and into his hand, making it look easy.
As the priest unveiled his insights, it became clear why this ancient game mattered. He knew our team was up against a ruthless giant in one of the negotiations we were working on with his government, but somehow our standard advice didn’t seem to adequately recognize the forces on the other side of the table.
This quiet, wise-man’s game wasn’t just a game: it was a philosophy, a strategy, and a plan for getting what we want from those who tower over us and hold overwhelming power in their hands—our giants. This wasn’t the first time I’d thought about how negotiating with giants involved unique and sometimes deadly challenges. But it was the first time I’d thought in any detail about the different approaches these negotiations required, and how power can appear to be in someone’s hands when it really isn’t.
I thanked the priest for sharing his game, unaware that our brief interaction would stay with me for more than a decade, up to this moment. What began that evening was a fascination, which would increasingly become the focus of my advisory work, teaching and research.
I would go on to join discussions with academics at the Harvard Negotiation Roundtable as I started exploring negotiations with giants today and throughout history. I’d work on giant negotiations for entre- preneurs, musicians, athletes, prisoners, patients, consultants, foundations, fired executives, cheated spouses, weakened unions and developing nations—negotiating on behalf of these smaller clients whenever helpful. I’d continue my distinct work with giants as well, supporting Wall Street firms, venture capitalists, international bodies and corporations such as Microsoft, Intel, Suez and HSBC, furthering my understanding of their interests, especially in dealings with smaller players.
This book is my attempt to pass along what I’ve learned about the toughest, riskiest negotiations any of us will encounter in our professional or personal lives, at a point in history when the stakes in many of these negotiations couldn’t be much higher, as we’ll soon see.
What Defines a Giant and What Exactly is a Giant Negotiation?
Giants have always been part of our lives. Today, however, they’re everywhere, and often much larger, more controlling, more menacing and much faster on their feet than ever before, with big hands that can reach into every corner of every continent.
One of those corners is probably in your neighborhood, maybe even in your own home.
Where huge dinosaurs once ruled the earth, giant nations, corporations, systems, groups and individuals now stand tall, the new rulers for this millennium. These titans gain their status through a combination of resources and social or emotional clout many times larger than our own.
By my definition, we’re negotiating with giants anytime we try to influence them to do something, or not do something, and most objective observers would rate our odds of success between zero and 40 percent, often believing it’s more likely we’ll be crushed.
Our giant might be a government if we’re an unhappy taxpayer, an abusive husband who controls all the money, or a massive corporation if we’re a supplier negotiating a critical contract. With the worldwide growth of big business over the past quarter century—propelled by open borders, the efficiency of consolidations and relaxed antitrust regulations—even a robust smaller business with a few million dollars in sales can find itself standing in the mind-bending shadow of a corporation 50,000 to 100,000 times its size.
One of these hulking shadows belongs to Wal-Mart. Sales at the aggressive retailer totaled just over $1 billion in 1980. Now its sales are approaching half a trillion a year, placing it among the world’s largest corporations—ever. Wal-Mart’s home base, America, generates close to $15 trillion worth of transactions, five times their value in 1980, making the US the largest economic juggernaut in history. The top 1% of Americans who reap the greatest rewards from all this growth earn at least 90 times as much as those in the bottom 20%, triple the size of this divide in 1980. Wherever you live, the average person on the street stares up at the giant organizations and individuals surrounding them, wondering how to move out from their shadows. For those in developing nations, this mounting size divide feels both unfathomable and unfair.
The Distinct Challenges in Giant Negotiations
Around the globe, entrepreneurs, consumers, employees, job-hunters and citizens concerned about issues such as global warming find themselves increasingly frustrated, unable to get what they want from their giants— money, resources, rights or change—and uncertain how to negotiate with our new Goliaths.
While our modern mammoths routinely play positive roles by creating jobs, producing wealth, spreading innovation and establishing new standards, they’re also capable of hurting us, on purpose or not. They may damage our possessions and relationships, steal our ideas, devour our time, ruin our reputations, create one-sided deals in their favor, tie us up in court until we run out of money, or simply ignore us at their leisure, without being held accountable. Just getting to the negotiation table with them can be an enormous hurdle.
So how do you negotiate with Wal-Mart? With America’s President over going to war? An improved education system for your kids? The end of state-sponsored racial discrimination? A cleaner environment? An ethical issue with an intimidating boss? An unequal personal relationship? A Super Bowl victory for a team of losers? A capital infusion if you’re a start-up venture on the verge of bankruptcy? Better healthcare from your medical system? Better service from a huge phone company? The return of stolen treasure, lost rights or a canceled credit card? The survival of a city about to be destroyed? Or, in perhaps the most extreme case we’ll look at, your own survival should you ever be taken hostage by an armed killer?
What I’ve discovered is that all the answers we’re looking for are connected by four size and strength strategies used by successful smaller players.
Our Answers Come from Real-Life Stories
Negotiating with Giants tells the stories of dozens of smaller players who get what they want from their Goliaths. The lessons from their journeys can be applied to our own negotiations today, whoever our giant happens to be. I’ve given a name to these smaller players who achieve their success through giant negotiations: I call them Size Wizards, because they know how to make themselves bigger and stronger, their giants smaller and weaker, and their opportunities much greater than they’d otherwise be.
As I take you on a whirlwind tour of both current and historic events, we’ll look over the shoulders of these Size Wizards, watching them execute the same quartet of defensive and offensive strategies. We’ll learn from them, whether their lessons come from business, politics, education, health, entertainment or sports.
Among those we’ll meet: entrepreneurs Jesse Rasch and a young Bill Gates; writers Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rachel Carson and Ida Tarbell; statesmen Ben Franklin and Nelson Mandela; social activists Emmeline Pankhurst and Rosa Parks; whistleblower Cynthia Cooper; Magna Carta rebel Robert FitzWalter; Internet rebel Carl Oppedahl; consumer Lucia Pacifico; coach Bill Belichick; parent Pamela MacKenzie; entertainers David Letterman and Courtney Cox; and photographer Lewis Hine.
I’ve gathered the stories of these Size Wizards, and others, from a wide range of sources including my smaller clients and contacts with first-hand knowledge. In some cases, I’ve changed the names of certain Size Wizards and any circumstances that might lead to their being identified. One entrepreneur called me at the last moment, telling me his wife didn’t want his name used because she feared the money they’d earned could make their children a target for kidnappers. More commonly though, these Size Wizards fear their giants. Giants are notorious for “encouraging” smaller players to keep their success stories to themselves, frequently getting them to sign “gag clauses” aimed at guaranteeing their silence—one of the reasons this book hasn’t been written before now.
It feels good to be inspired by a story or a new idea, but given the stakes and immense challenges in our giant negotiations, we need more than inspiration. We need concrete answers. At the end of every Size Wizard’s story, I’ll share my analysis and provide bullet-point advice so you can tailor each story’s unique lessons to your own circumstances. We’ll plunge into these richly detailed stories after our opening chapter has revealed the time-honored habits, helping hands and strategies employed by successful smaller players throughout the centuries.
In the far-flung Size Wizard adventures that lie ahead, we’ll uncover what giants care about, what makes them act, and how to: choose the best conditions for influencing them; attract our giants or penetrate giant organizations; keep our ideas safe and protect ourselves; exploit the mainstream media or our own media; structure giant deals to create as much value as possible; increase the likelihood our giants will live up to their commitments; talk to our giants eye-to-eye in the most difficult circumstances; and take advantage of their strengths and our weaknesses.
The Golden Slingshot that Gets Us What We Want
Do you remember how David defeated Goliath, killing the nine-foot-tall Philistine with a single stone from his ancient slingshot? Well, it doesn’t happen like that anymore. Giants in this millennium don’t tend to die or go away overnight. They’re going to be around for a while, or their heirs will be, long enough that if you try to hurt them, they may well find you and make you pay a heavy price. The Size Wizards don’t focus on winning, or beating their giants, they focus on getting what they want.
Faced with the harsh reality of our modern-day Goliaths, we need updated weapons. Our slingshots must be golden—solid, malleable, polished and precise. We won’t use stones as our ammunition. Instead, we’ll use the piercing secrets of the Size Wizards to overcome the odds against us, aiming to work with our giants and resorting to aggressive actions only if truly necessary.
From our ground-level view as smaller players trying to satisfy our interests, history’s message seems clear: along the path to uncommon success or resounding failure, most of us will encounter a giant negotiation that determines our fate one way or the other. If this is true, no matter who we are, no matter where we live—Los Angeles, London, Moscow, Johannesburg or the jungles of the Philippines—we can’t prepare ourselves soon enough.