Richard Cohen, best-selling author of more than a dozen books including the new memoir about his father, The Adventures of Herbie Cohen. Based in Connecticut, he is co-creator with Martin Scorsese of the HBO series Vinyl. AuthorRichCohen.com
One of the big challenges now that pandemic restrictions are mostly gone is dealing with people again. Isolation during COVID and the divisive force of social media have ruined friendships, estranged families and made it hard to resolve conflicts and forge civil agreements about…well…everything.
It may be time to try a little Herbie Cohen. Cohen is the legendary negotiator who helped resolve many of the world’s headline dramas over the past four decades. He advised the White House during the Iran hostage crisis and during the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks with the Soviet Union. He helped settle an NFL players strike…a Major League Baseball umpires’ strike…and a New Orleans police strike. He has trained FBI and CIA agents and Apple and Google executives in the art of negotiation.
Herbie Cohen’s son, Richard, had a ringside seat to it all, and he has captured some of Herbie’s best secrets in a new memoir, The Adventures of Herbie Cohen: World’s Greatest Negotiator.
Rich says his father popularized the term “win-win” in the 1960s and lived that philosophy whether he was in nuclear arms talks or buying his teenager a used Toyota. The idea is to get what you want out of a situation by being psychologically shrewd and emotionally tough—and by leaving the other side content. No situation was ever hopeless for Herbie, no matter how divided the parties. There always was a connection to be made, a compromise to be struck.
One of Herbie’s trademarks was wearing two watches, one on each wrist—a quirky but effective reminder for him that everyone’s perspective is valid. “A man with one watch thinks he knows the time,” he’d explain, “but a man with two watches knows he can never be sure.”
Bottom Line Personal asked Richard Cohen for other Herbie aphorisms that can help you negotiate better outcomes in all kinds of situations…
“Dumb is smarter than smart.” The most powerful phrases in any negotiation are “I don’t understand. Help me.” and “You lost me. Could you repeat that again?” Reason: Ceding power actually gains you power. It turns your perceived weakness into a strength, disarms the other side and gets them working for you, especially if you are dealing with stubborn opponents who feel superior to you. Admitting ignorance, even if it’s a bit feigned, is flattering to the other party because you are showing your vulnerability, humility and open-mindedness.
“Care—but not that much.” It’s important to stay a bit detached during a negotiation. If the other side senses that you are operating out of desperation, they likely will harden their positions. Example: In 1979, Iranian militants stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took 66 Americans hostages. The White House brought in Herbie Cohen, who felt that President Jimmy Carter had exuded weakness—he emboldened the Iranians and their bargaining power, first by becoming obsessed with a peaceful resolution, then by launching an aborted military rescue mission that resulted in eight dead US servicemen whose bodies were paraded before Iranian TV cameras. When Herbie met with President-elect Ronald Reagan, he suggested making a tough statement on Iran to drive the hostage takers to deal with Carter. Reagan told the world, “I don’t think you pay ransom for people that have been kidnapped by barbarians.” Most of the hostages were released several minutes before Reagan took office in 1981 (13 had been released in November 1979…one released in July 1980).
“A nose that can hear is worth two that can smell.” Herbie said that being a little unusual when negotiating is as important as being qualified. Example: When I was considering going to graduate school, Herbie sent applications on my behalf, without telling me, to Cal Tech and MIT. When I found out, I protested, “Do you realize I have taken only a single math class since high school?” Herbie responded, “That’s the thing. They’ve never seen an application like yours. The admissions office looks at genius kid after genius kid. Then your crazy application pops up. It makes no sense. It’s strange. It’s a nose that can hear! Kids at those schools have been the smartest in every room since fifth grade. Suddenly, for the first time, they’ll be surrounded by kids just as smart. They’re going to need someone to feel superior to in math—that can be you!” I did not end up going to any of the schools that Herbie applied to in my name, but he always said that I was accepted to two Ivy League schools because I was such an oddball applicant.
“Solve the problem…don’t dole out justice.” Even if negotiations become cutthroat, it’s never a zero-sum game. You mustn’t let the other side walk away feeling defeated if you want good long-term results. One of the big failures of Herbie’s career happened when he ignored his own advice. Back in the 1980s, he was approached by the town leaders in the Chicago suburb of Glencoe, Illinois, where we lived, to negotiate a deal to wire the town for cable television. Herbie took a loathing to the representative from the cable-TV company, but they bargained ferociously and agreed to a great long-term deal for several towns on Chicago’s North Shore. But the company ultimately rejected the lopsided deal and actually refused to provide cable-TV to the town for years. My teenage friends and I blamed Herbie for making us grow up without cable. He said that he had saved us from a childhood staring at the screen and that we should be thanking him.
“Make it a game.” There comes a point in most negotiations where you get bad or unexpected news that can leave you feeling powerless. But bad news is just a call to mix up your approach to stir progress. Don’t become fixated on a particular result—that tends to lead to all-or-nothing outcomes. Goals can change, and you can wind up with something far better than you imagined. Example: In college, I captained and coached a summer league softball team. We were so bad that several teammates asked Herbie to take over as coach. He started shuffling the batting order, moving the players to new positions and devising eccentric defensive shifts. If the batter was a ground-ball hitter, he would leave one defender in the outfield and move the other eight to the infield. We were the laughing stock of the league…but we started winning and made it to the playoffs. In the first playoff game, bottom of the ninth inning, we were up by one run. The other team was batting with bases loaded but down to their last out. Herbie walked out to the mound and ordered our pitcher to walk the batter. I went berserk—“We need one more out to win, and you want to intentionally walk in the game-tying run?” Herbie said the batter was too dangerous. It was better to tie the game and take our chances in extra innings. I fired my dad as coach and had our team pitch to the batter. Result: He hit a grand slam home run and knocked us out of the playoffs.
“Slow down time.” Negotiations nowadays are accelerated. Everyone expects an immediate response to their urgent text, tweet or post. But Herbie loved using time, boredom and silence to his benefit. “If you don’t like how things are going,” he used to say, “wait.” Example: Several years ago, my wife and I wanted to buy a house. We immediately met the seller’s asking price. “Wrong!” said Herbie. “The sellers won’t be glad. They’ll think, Damn! We set the price too low.” Later, after our offer for the house had indeed been rejected, Herbie explained that the sellers weren’t just looking for the best price. They needed to think they’d gotten everything possible out of us. They would have taken our asking price if they thought they had stretched us beyond our limit.