Skip to main content

by John W. McDonald

This assessment from a senior American diplomat and international organizations official, originally published in slightly different form in 1996 in the Kluwer Law Journal (the Netherlands), is drawn from his decades of experience as a high-level negotiator. Republished with the permission of the author.– Ed.

After reviewing my own experience of forty years as an American diplomat and international negotiator, I have developed my own personal definition of a U. S. negotiating style. This definition bears in mind that any style of negotiation is tempered and influenced by the personality and the ability of the individual negotiator, as well as the cultural, political, emotional, and physical situations surrounding the negotiations. In fact, the cases in this issue suggest strongly that many factors, in addition to style, are at work in shaping the process and outcome of international negotiations, including tactics strategy, the structure of the negotiations, and external influences, to name a few.

I believe the following characteristics, both positive and negative, taken collectively, define a U. S. negotiating style.

Impatient—We are the most impatient people in the world. This characteristic is carried over into our negotiating style to such an extent that the rest of the world recognizes this trait in our negotiators and takes advantage of it at every opportunity. Impatience is such an ingrained, subconscious tendency in most Americans that they don’t even realize the rest of the world marches to the tune of a different drummer. Different perceptions of time cause many misunderstandings during negotiations.

Arrogant—Most other peoples believe that we are the most arrogant, or certainly one of the most arrogant, nations in the world. Our superpower is certainly a part of this image. This power-based arrogance is often projected by our negotiators across the conference table at international gatherings. Often such arrogance is seen by others as our second nature. We seem to project the belief that we are superior to other peoples because we have led the world for fifty years and know that we are best in everything we do. Many Americans are actually surprised when they are accused by non-Americans of possessing this characteristic and frequently take exception to this criticism, thereby making matters worse.

Listening—We are not good listeners. This goes hand in hand with impatience and arrogance. Because we have not developed good listening skills, which require patience, we are assumed to be superficial and uninterested in other points of view, and therefore arrogant.

Insular—Most Americans have limited experience with regard to other cultures. This shortcoming can often lead to mistakes, misunderstandings and subsequent embarrassment on the part of the Americans. Such restricted experience often leads to a feeling of insecurity on the part of the Americans and may result in their making a limited outreach towards other delegates. Rarely is this misinterpreted by others as shyness, but rather as a lack of interest. It may also be considered to be part of an American superiority complex.

Legalistic—The majority of American negotiators are lawyers. This means that they are intelligent, hardworking, adversarial, usually dedicated to the task at hand, and legalistic. Legalistic, in this context, means concerned with detail. We are less interested in general principles, or with the larger picture, and are more interested in the fine print of the agreement. It also means that when an agreement is reached, we consider it final. It is not subject to being reopened or renegotiated. Because our law schools teach students to go out and win, we are trained in the win-lose concept of negotiations: I win – you lose. International negotiations today are more and more frequently based on a consensus building approach or win-win philosophy.

Naive—Our insular attitude, and sometimes our appearance, can give the impression that we are naive, are easy marks for the skilled negotiator and are someone to be taken advantage of. This can actually happen to a newcomer to the international negotiating arena, but the impression is usually incorrect and not long-lasting. In fact, the characteristics of naiveté can be turned around, to the advantage of the American negotiator.

Friendly—We are recognized as being friendly, out-going, and having a sense of humor. This trait is particularly important. Being friendly helps to build a sense of trust among negotiators. Having a sense of humor, at the right time, is essential because it can be used to break tension and often helps to move a difficult negotiating process along, towards a satisfactory conclusion.

Fair—We are perceived as believing in fair play and honesty. This characteristic is widely recognized throughout the international community, and respected.

Flexible—U.S. negotiators have more authority to make decisions during negotiations than most other delegations. This means that they can often make decisions on the spot, at the conference table. This flexibility is due to the fact that a good negotiator is trusted by his headquarters. He has also built some negotiating flexibility into the U. S. position, before leaving for the conference. In addition, U. S. delegations are larger than most other delegations because they include subject matter experts, who often have the answers to substantive questions at their fingertips. This enables the United States to project a positive image and to adapt the U. S. position more quickly and more easily than other delegations in order to meet a new situation or a particular issue that has just arisen.

Risk Takers—More so than most, U. S. negotiators are risk takers. They are often prepared to put forward new and innovative ideas, suggestions for compromise, even specific language that can move the conference towards agreement. This is often done without prior approval from headquarters and represents the risk the head of delegation is prepared to take, in order to reach consensus. This trait is widely recognized and highly respected by other delegations.

Pragmatic—The U. S. point of view is usually a practical, pragmatic one. We are rarely interested in high-flown rhetoric, long, flowery speeches or a dogmatic, ideological point of view. We want to get on with discussing the substance of the issues on the agenda and try to reach some practical conclusion about the matter at hand.

Preparation—We are usually the best prepared delegation at the conference table. We go to extraordinary lengths, often starting many months in advance of a conference, to prepare position papers, briefing books, and background documentation. The U. S. delegation attempts to anticipate every issue that might arise during the negotiations and develop a response to that situation, ready to be used at the conference. All position papers prepared for intergovernmental negotiations are approved in advance by each agency in the executive branch that has an interest in that subject. This is time and effort well spent and is reflected repeatedly in the final positive results of the negotiations.

Cooperative—Americans are cooperative. They are aware of the importance of interagency coordination in the development of U. S. positions papers. At the conference itself they recognize the necessity for working and cooperating with other delegations, the conference secretariat, the press, nongovernmental organization representatives, and the private business sector. They also recognize the authority of the head of their delegation and acknowledge the importance of the delegation’s need to speak with one voice on an issue.

I believe that a combination of these characteristics can be found in all of the American delegates who represent the United States Government at the one thousand annual, international, intergovernmental conferences the United States attends. There may be other traits which could be added to the list of attributes defining a U. S. negotiating style. It is clear, however, that the positive characteristics outweigh the negative ones. With awareness, training, skill, and study, the negative traits can be changed and corrected. When this is achieved, our negotiators will be more effective and be viewed by the rest of the world with even greater esteem and respect.End.

Comments are closed.