11 Laws of Negotiation from History’s Greatest Leaders

by Timothy Ronaldson


Those who are looking to become successful in business can follow some famous examples from history that include well-known laws of negotiation.

If you want to be a good negotiator, you should follow the examples others have set by standard rules of negotiation.

Mastering the skill of negotiation is essential if you want to gain an advantage in business, which is why it’s so important to learn some secrets of negotiation.

1. Zoom Out and Zoom In

Henry Kissinger is known as one of the greatest political negotiators from the 20th century. He served as the former Secretary of State under both U.S. Presidents Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon.

One of his major duties was to work on negotiating peace during the Vietnam War, and also forging peaceful negotiations with the Soviet Union. In 1973, he even won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

One of Kissinger’s major laws of negotiation was to both zoom out to include his broad negotiation strategy and then zoom in to his counterpart in the negotiation.

The idea was to combine interpersonal and strategic forms together into one so that the core interests he wanted to pursue went forward.

It’s not just the rules of negotiation themselves that he followed, though, it was how he worked them in.

They weren’t two separate steps to negotiation for Kissinger, but rather a single strategy that he described as iterative. In other words, he used them in tandem to get what he wanted.

If a high profile political negotiator isn’t in the cards for you, there are also plenty of jobs with no stress that still leverage negotiation skills.

By being able to zoom out to your own broad strategy and then zoom in on your negotiating counterpart as Kissinger did, you’ll be able to identify opportunities to capitalize on during intense negotiations.

Tactics for Success

  • Start by preparing your own negotiation strategy. Come up with what you want to get out of the negotiation, and make a priority list of topics for this.
  • Then, create a hypothetical list for what you believe your counterpart wants to get out of the negotiation. This will help you adjust your strategy for give and take.

2. Don’t Rely on the Past

One of the most successful negotiators in modern history is billionaire investor Warren Buffet.

He’s known for many unique things, but one of the most prominent is he almost never relies on the past or his “gut” as a determining factor for future success – although some things do remain fairly constant such as taxes and future proof jobs.

Instead, he studies intensely and almost over-prepares for every negotiation. The reason he does this is it helps him be the most prepared person in the room, and that’s often extremely important in negotiations.

It also reiterates to him that no two negotiations are ever the same — even if the parties on both sides are the same.

It’s helped Buffet quite substantially throughout his career, too. For a person to be as wealthy and successful as he is and not have any big enemies is quite impressive in its own right.

His net worth of close to $100 billion is also impressive.

People can learn from Buffet that one of the secrets of negotiation is simply to study up, prepare and be knowledgeable. That’ll help carry you through challenging times when others are relying on their instinct, which often proves to be wrong.

Trends on the Rise

One of the biggest trends in negotiation is personalizing the approach. In fact, 80% of people say they are more likely to do business with a company that personalizes the approach to them. This works in negotiation, too, as Buffet has taught us.

3. Make Some Concessions, But Not on Everything


Nelson Mandela is often labeled as the 20th century’s greatest negotiator. Over decades of fighting against apartheid in South Africa, Mandela went from prison inmate to president of the free country.

Mandela employed a lot of great skills in negotiations, including tenacity, strategic thinking, pragmatism and patience. He both negotiated with the Devil and forcibly resisted — where it was needed.

One of Mandela’s biggest strengths as a negotiator was that he wasn’t so hard-headed. He was willing to make some concessions. However, he didn’t concede everything, especially the things that were most important to him.

He was famous for standing his ground on the issues that were most important to him, which ultimately led those he was negotiating with to make concessions to come to an agreement.

Mandela made others think they had won in some instances, only to come back and win in the areas that really mattered the most to him. In fact, this can be a reason people don’t get hired if they are unwilling to make compromises in job offer details.

You can learn from Mandela that all negotiations require concessions of some sort. If you do it in areas that don’t matter as much to you, you can win the areas that are of importance to you.

Trends on the Rise

One of the biggest current trends in negotiation is to stick with what’s known as BATNA, or the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. In other words, what is your lowest acceptable value in a negotiation? Mandela was great at understanding this, so he could make certain concessions but not others.

4. Wait for an Invitation

In 1688, William II, the Prince of Orange, was being pressured to invade England and force then King James II to name his eldest daughter, Mary — the Protestant wife of William II — to be named heir over King James’ just-born son, James Francis Edward Stuart, who was baptized as a Catholic.

William II was reluctant to attack, though, and said he would only do so if he were invited. That invitation came from a group of seven English nobles who would come to be known as “the Immortal Seven.”

By waiting to be invited to attack, William II was able to negotiate support from the signers of the letter as well as all of their allies. This made it possible for William’s small army to be successful.

Without that support, William’s efforts most likely would have been unsuccessful.

The actions of the Immortal Seven eventually led to William II and his wife Mary being named rulers of England.

In all the laws of negotiation, patience is something that is often preached. By being patient and waiting for your counterpart to invite you to do something, you’ll find more allies in the process and be more successful.

Tactics for Success

  • Patience is a virtue. That’s a relatively well-known saying, but it’s true. You don’t always have to act right away in negotiations.
  • Knowing when to act (or attack, as in the case of William II) is often as important as the actual act of acting.

5. Don’t Stick to One Strategy


Mohandas Gandhi is best known for his non-violent, peaceful approach to protest.

At a time in the 1930s when India was still under British rule, Gandhi and his followers took an opposite approach to fighting for independence — they protested without violence.

Many were arrested, but ultimately, Gandhi found himself at the negotiating table with England’s political leaders.

One of Gandhi’s secrets of negotiation was not employing a single strategy, but rather combining multiple ones to gain his ultimate goal — independence for India.

He used his morals to persuade people. He was a civil disobedient, which got him recognized. And he was a formal negotiator with other renowned politicians of his time.

This entire package is what Gandhi referred to as an “ecology of change.” He rallied people behind his cause, built an organizational structure that could last and then created alternatives that were outside of what was considered mainstream at the time.

Leveraging multiple strategies is also an underutilized tip for finding a job – many job seekers stick with just 1 strategy they are comfortable with and refuse to incorporate others.

People can learn many positive lessons from Gandhi, but most importantly that the laws of negotiation should be multi-faceted and nimble. Not sticking to one strategy helps you to adjust on the fly to what’s in front of you.

6. Set Boundaries

In 866, the Vikings landed in what is now the United Kingdom, looking to conquer all the land. The Great Heathen Army was very successful in their conquests, reducing the territory of King Alfred The Great to only a few square miles.

King Alfred’s army ultimately defeated the Vikings in 878 during the Battle of Edington.

And while the battle victory itself is often credited with stopping the Vikings, it was Alfred’s ability during negotiations to set formal boundaries that made his reign so successful for years to come.

The Treaty of Alfred and Gunthrum — the latter of whom was the Danish king at the time — established formal boundaries, legitimizing what’s known as “The Danelaw.”

This treaty allowed Alfred to rebuild his kingdom, because it set up formal boundaries and lasting peace between what was now two border ruling classes.

By establishing these boundaries and terms for lasting peace, King Alfred was able to use the upper hand he had to rebuild his kingdom without any resistance.

While his army’s fighting on the battlefield was a show of strength, it was the rules of negotiation that he followed to gain the upper hand over Gunthrum.

By setting boundaries, you can establish expectations in negotiations.

7. Look for Sources of Leverage

Ramesses II negotiated one of the oldest peace arrangements in history, ending conflicts between his Egyptian empire and the Hittite empire in the 13th century BCE.

The Egyptian pharaoh was tired of fighting with the Hittite’s, with both sides losing a lot in the process. Ramesses II was also worried about conflict with Egypt’s other neighbors, so he sat down with King Hattusili III to negotiate.

Many times, in war conflicts — especially those of that day — leaders had a need to declare victory. They sought sources of leverage such as muscle and money whenever they had it.

Sometimes, though, as in the case of Ramesses II, those things weren’t present.

Each side had money, and they were also evenly matched on the battlefield. So, Ramesses II looked for other sources of leverage.

In his case, it was the unwillingness of King Hattusili III to continue fighting and suffering casualties. Ramesses II used that to negotiate a peace agreement that was one of the first of its kind, and led to years of peace between the two empires.

The lesson of these laws of negotiation is that you should always look for areas where you have leverage so that you can “win” the negotiation.

8. Act Powerful, Even When You Are Not


Charles de Gaulle isn’t often thought of as one of the most impactful French leaders of all time.

Yet, he was responsible for negotiating his way through three major events from 1940 to 1968 that preserved the French republic and ensured long-lasting peace and success.

One of his rules of negotiation was to act powerful, even when you are not. The first instance in 1940 is perhaps his most impressive negotiation.

Winston Churchill’s England at that time had Ultra and radar along with a huge empire. De Gaulle had none of those things, but had a boisterous voice that he loved to use.

Many historians say his ability to negotiate from a position of significant weakness is perhaps the most impressive act of negotiation in the 20th century.

Among de Gaulle’s other successful negotiations was overseeing the breakup of the west and the east following the surrender by Nazi Germany.

You can take from de Gaulle that you don’t necessarily have to be powerful in order to come across as powerful. And negotiating from a position where you look powerful, even when you are not, can be key to success.

9. Create Value

Every great negotiator needs to be able to create value for the other party in order to get them to do what you want.

There was perhaps no better person in history at doing that than former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

While campaigning for president in 1912, Roosevelt’s campaign manager printed off 3 million pamphlets with his photograph on it. The problem was they never sought permission from the photographer who took the photo.

That could open them up to a lawsuit of $1 for every pamphlet, or a total of $3 million. So, Roosevelt and his team flipped the script and created value for the photographer.

They reached out to the photographer to say they were planning to distribute millions of the pamphlets with his photo on it, and that it would be great publicity for the photographer. They then asked how much he’d pay for the privilege.

The photographer apparently bought into the value the Roosevelt campaign had created and paid $250 for the right to have his photo printed. What could’ve been a $3 million lawsuit turned into a $250 profit.

It’s a great example how negation is literally one of the top high income skills.

If you don’t create value for the other side in negotiations, there’s no way you’ll ever be successful. Sometimes, you have to get creative when you’re doing so.

10. Develop Emotional Intelligence

Any skilled negotiator will tell you that all people are driven by emotions. People make decisions based on what they care about the most.

Chris Voss, who served for more than 20 years with the FBI as a hostage negotiator, was one of the best at using emotional intelligence to convince others to do what he wanted — and not what they set out to do originally.

In 1998, he negotiated with three fugitives who were holed up inside an apartment in Harlem. He had no phone to converse with them, so he talked to them through the apartment door for six hours — and he never received a response.

All he did was keep repeating phrases such as “It looks like you don’t want to go back to jail,” and “It seems like you worry that if you open the door, we’ll come in with guns blazing.”

That tactic worked, as eventually, the fugitives came out peacefully, with one saying Voss calmed them down. They believed Voss wasn’t going anywhere, so they came out.

Good negotiators need to develop their emotional intelligence, which is the ability to understand, manage and identify emotions — both their own and their counterparts’.

11. Learn About Other Cultures

In today’s interconnected world, people need to learn how to negotiate with other cultures. This is one of the most important laws of negotiation, as the customary approaches to negotiation differ from one culture to the next.

In other words, what works with someone from one culture may not work the same with someone from another culture.

William Ury is one of the best at doing this. He has helped settle disputes in the Middle East (international conflicts) as well as with corporate conglomerates. He has helped negotiations at the White House, among business leaders, corporate organizations and military officers.

Ury is also the co-founder of the Harvard Program of Negotiation, giving weight to his resume.

The skill that people can learn from Ury is that no two negotiations are the same — and as such, no two approaches should be the same.

Wrapping Up

If you want to be successful at negotiating, you should follow some of the tried-and-true laws of negotiation used by history’s greatest negotiators.

These skills will help you win more negotiations as you want to.

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Tim is a classically-trained journalist who loves to share knowledge and information with others. In the past, he has worked in TV, online and print media, and currently works with companies to help design, create and strategize their messaging.

About the Author

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Tim is a classically-trained journalist who loves to share knowledge and information with others. In the past, he has worked in TV, online and print media, and currently works with companies to help design, create and strategize their messaging.