Book Review: Kissinger the Negotiator — Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level


Rating:  five out of five stars

Title: Kissinger the Negotiator — Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level

Author:  James K. Sebenius with R. Nicholas Burns and Robert M. Mnookin

Year:  2018

Current price:  $14.99 (Kindle edition); $17.99 (paperback)

Bottom line:  Want to learn how to handle complex negotiations?  You can’t do much better than this.

The Good Parts:

  • A rare find — a book that interviews some of the United States’ most accomplished negotiators, and presents — in a case study-esque style, their experiences and the lessons that one can draw from their successes and failures.
  • It is usual to find this combination of (A) candid commentary about aspects of negotiations that generally remain secret for many years after the fact, and (B) a relatively neutral viewpoint from an academic narrator.  Most of the time, you either get only the former, which generally forms an inherently incomplete and skewed perspective, or only the latter, which generally results in a book filled with academic theory divorced from real practice.
  • If you are in the complex negotiations business, you will finish this book with real, practical take-aways that can help you in your own work.
  • The authors write well.  The book is easy to read and stays engaging throughout.  In lesser hands, this might have been a boring narrative on diplomatic negotiations.

The Not-Quite-So-Good Parts:

  • Just wish there was more content!


Negotiation is one of those skills that is almost impossible to learn in a classroom.  You can read as much as you want about it, sit through as many classes on the topic as you like, and participate in as many mock negotiations as you can tolerate — but actually getting up and negoitating when the stakes are high something that you can only learn by doing.

The closest analogy I can think of is boxing.  You can study how to punch and shadowbox all you like, but once you step into the ring against a real opponent, it’s a totally different game.  There’s no time to think or theorize anymore; you have to rely on instinct and reflex.  Mike Tyson said it better, however:  “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face..”

"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face."

We’ll get to the book in a moment, but just to elaborate a bit further…I’ve lived this experience.  Almost all of what skill I have in this art came through experience.  Early in my legal career, I was fortunate enough to have volunteered for a pro bono legal aid program where I represented defendants in eviction lawsuits in their mandatory pre-trial settlement conferences.  (Basically, before your case could go to trial, you had to at least try to settle it, and the court provided mediators to assist the process.)

I did the work when my day job at a big law firm permitted, but in terms of learning negotiation, it was light-years beyond my paying work.

Handling these settlement conferences truly was being thrown in the deep end of the pool.  The conferences were every Friday afternoon.  In the morning, the legal aid agency sent you the the day’s case files, usually about three defendants.  You took what time you had that morning to review them, and then headed over to the courthouse.

Once you arrived, you had maybe half an hour to meet and talk to your clients, and then it was off to the races, negotiating with the landlords’ lawyers and trying to get the best outcome possible for each of your clients that day.

While the outcome of each case didn’t determine fate of the free world, it did mean the difference between a home and homelessness for many of your clients.  So your negotiations took place against a backdrop of impending doom for many defendants.  And raising the stakes even higher was the fact that if your case didn’t settle that Friday, it was set for jury selection and an all-or-nothing trial starting the following Monday.

That meant you had to just suck it up, jump in, and learn by doing.  It wasn’t easy, and in many cases I was the newly-minted big-firm lawyer with the fancy degree but no practical experience, up against older attorneys whose offices may not have occupied prime downtown real estate, but who had decades of negotiation experience under their belts.

Some of these dudes were truly sly old foxes that could smell uncertainty and fear a mile away.  They saw kids like me as fresh meat to put through the grinder, and rightfully so.  After all, the job required every ounce of your concentration to do the following things simultaneously:

  • Keep your client’s objectives and interests at the top of your mind — and how what is being discussed will affect them;
  • Try to figure out what was really going on in your case (perhaps it will not surprise you to know that not all clients tell you the full story, and some of them even lie to you?);
  • Look for clues about what was valuable to the opposing party, and what consequences they feared (e.g., was the tenant truly a problem, were they motivated by greed, were they short on cash and feared having to pay their lawyer to take the case to trial, etc. — anything that might give you leverage);
  • Keep your emotions in check;
  • Take into account to whatever the mediator told you; and
  • Remember the relevant law and how it applied to your case.

…and all of the above under severe time constraints.

In other words, it was the legal equivalent of stepping into the ring and getting punched in the face.  All your well-thought-out plans went straight out the courthouse window.  And your opponent may have been handling cases like this for decades.

So…is it any wonder why what I learned in my negotiation classes didn’t help all that much?  There’s hardly even time to think about exactly what you learned in law school in that sort of situation.  You had to learn by doing.

Of course, most skills are more easily learned through “doing” in the field than through theory alone.  But negotiation is, frankly, a bit different than most.

(Now we’re getting to the book.)

First of all, outside of the simplest negotiations, there are so many factors at play that no two are the same.  A lot of the general rules you learn in negotiation classes and negotiation books are fine rules of thumb, but speaking from experience, the real challenge is putting them into practice in a specific situation.

It’s sort of like learning how to box.  I’ve both boxed and negotiated, and I can tell you that those negotiation classes and books have their place, but

But second, and compounding that problem, is that the details of many negotiations are usually kept secret.  

This is particularly true in complex negotiations, where much of the communication between the parties is often never revealed publicly — and sometimes it takes place through off-the-record back channels whose very existence the negotiators themselves deny.

That’s why the average citizen almost never gets the full story about high-level commercial negotiations (like a merger), or diplomatic accords.  In almost every case, the important discussions — the ones where the important business was really done — occurred far from the public eye.  And in the case of negotiations between govenrments, most of the important details are classified, which means talking about those details publicly results in jail time.

So why should you care?  And what the hell does all of this have to do with this book review?

Well, because of all this, it is hard even to find accurate case studies about complex negotiations.  Most people involved in them simply can’t write a book about them.  And when they do, they are often part of an autobiographical account that is inherently (A) limited by the author’s perspective, and (B) sometimes self-serving.

This book is one of those lovely exceptions to this rule, a rare instance where a team of academics who study negotiation wrote a book that distills interviews with famous U.S. diplomat and negotiator Henry Kissinger and a lot of his colleagues and counterparts, about high-stakes, high-profile negotiations.

These negotiations took place long enough ago that Kissinger and others can talk about them openly, and because the authors are third parties, the perspective is broader and more neutral — thus making it more likely that we are getting an accurate picture of what went on.  (That in and of itself is a tall order when you are talking about multi-year talks where many people were involved.  One single person’s viewpoint is inherently likely to be limited and biased.)

In other words, this book is a window into the innards of some very complex negotiations, as if you were part of Kissinger’s team at the table.  It shows you how a skilled negotiator like Kissinger planned his work in advance, and how he adapted to changing circumstances.  And beyond that, it also gives you the academic outsider’s thoughts on the lessons that might be drawn from these experiences.  In that manner, the academic theory provides useful food for thought, but without overwhelming the practical experience that forms the backbone of the book.

Just by way of example, the book stresses the importance of thinking of negotiations as a process that goes far beyond the people sitting at the negotiating table.  Successful negotiation — and my own experience in the matter backs this up, for what it’s worth — often involves changing the circumstances surrounding the discussions to favor your own interests.  That can even mean bringing new interests into the discussion, or trying to box some people out.  (In fact, one of the big weaknesses of my bargaining position as a pro bono eviction lawyer is that I had almost no way to influence outside circumstances, having stepped into the case literally hours before the formal negotiations.) Thinking of negotiations as nothing more than talking and persuasion is nearsighted, and the book proves this very well.

As such, this book is a great blend of the most practical of experiences with some more theoretical commentaries.  You won’t find many of these about negotiation out there, since the number of skilled negotiations willing and able to talk about their experiences in a relatable way are few, much less those who were fortunate enough to team up with academics capable of writing well and summarizing a lot of complex information in an understandable manner.

For anyone who is planning on engaging in, or already engages in, complex negotiations, I couldn’t recommend this book more highly.  My only complaint is that I wished the book had covered more negotiations.  That in and of itself is a pretty ringing endorsement.

Buy:  Available here on Amazon. (Note that this is not an affiliate link or an endorsement.)

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