March 6, 2018

Four quick lessons in effective negotiation from Ulysses S. Grant

Posted in Negotiation by Gene Killian |

I’ve been reading Ron Chernow’s recent book, “Grant,” about our 18th President.  If you’re into history, especially Civil War history, I highly recommend it. Talk about a guy who went from rags to riches to rags to riches.

As a professional negotiator, though, I was particularly fascinated by the communications that Grant had with Confederate General Robert E. Lee, leading to the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox and, effectively, the end of the war. Studying Appomattox yields some key lessons about effective communication and “closing the deal.”  (I should add here that although Grant was successful in his negotiations with Lee, he was not so effective in negotiating with Congress later in his career, when he was President.  And he was a terrible businessperson.  Strange.)

Let me briefly set the stage. It’s April 1865. Four years of unimaginable butchery appear to be drawing to a close. The most formidable of the remaining Confederate armies, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, has been grimly defending the Confederate capital of Richmond. Grant, following several successful campaigns in the Western theater, including the capture of Vicksburg (which cut the Confederacy in two), has been called East by Lincoln in an effort to bring the war to a close, following the bumbling of a succession of Union generals. Grant has methodically cut off Lee’s supply lines, and is slowly but inexorably strangling Lee’s army.

But Grant has his own problems. As he presses into Virginia, his own supply lines have become stretched and strained. His detractors have called him a butcher, as the result of several battles involving intolerable casualties. Also, he is very concerned that Lee may abandon Richmond and retreat into eastern Tennessee to fight an irregular war, which Grant feels will prolong hostilities for at least a year. He wants to compel Lee to surrender before that happens.

With that brief summary in mind, let’s take a look at Grant’s opening gambit in the negotiation. Grant writes to Lee as follows:

“GENERAL: The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Va. in this struggle. I feel that it is so and regard it as my duty to shift from myself, the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the C. S. [Confederate States] Army known as the Army of Northern Va. Very respectfully your obt. svt U. S. Grant Lt. Gn.”

Notice the absence of ego from this communication. Grant could have delivered a stern ultimatum and demanded unconditional surrender (as he had, in different circumstances, against other Confederate commanders earlier in the war). But Grant knew that he was dealing with a proud man, and that such an aggressive communication would likely result in resistance, and the opposite effect from what he wanted. So, Grant appealed to common ground: The desire to avoid further bloodshed.  And note the tone of the communication:  Grant “asks.”  He does not “demand.”  Lastly, he recognizes Lee’s organization as an “Army,” and not as a band of rebels or traitors.  (Whether he believed that or not is another story.  He was willing to call it an "Army" to get the deal done.)

That is Lesson One from the exchange: Detach from your ego and try to find commonality. You can only do that effectively if you’ve thoroughly studied the problem and your opponent.

 Lee responds:

 "GENERAL:—I have received your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of N. Va. I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood & therefore before Considering your proposition ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender."

Lee knows he is in a terrible position. He knows that he could be branded a traitor and hanged from the nearest tree.  He also knows that his men are exhausted and that his supplies are running low. But he’s trying to gain more knowledge about Grant’s intentions, before deciding on his next move.  This is a technique we often see in business negotiations:  Getting the other side to commit to an offer (or a demand), so that you can decide whether it’s worthwhile to continue discussions. (That’s not always a good move, by the way.  Sometimes, it’s advantageous to put your position on the table first, and make the other side negotiate you down…or up.)

There are a few other aspects to Lee’s response that are worth noting. He’s bluffing by saying that he doesn’t think his situation is hopeless. The truth is:  It’s pretty hopeless. So, when do people bluff? There are some common instances. First, they bluff when they’re aggressive negotiators by nature. Aggressive negotiators hate to give an inch, no matter how hopeless the situation. That’s why, if you ask an aggressive negotiator to reveal the facts supporting his or her position, the aggressive negotiator will reveal them only grudgingly.  (Often, their factual support is weak and they’re trying to gain an advantage solely through bluster.) Second, people bluff to protect their ego. And third (related to the second point), people bluff when they know their position will be scrutinized by colleagues or supervisors, and they don’t want to look weak. Here, Lee must’ve known that the momentous note he was writing would be examined by historians for centuries to come. So, his use of the bluff was likely not an aggressive negotiation tactic, but an attempt to save face given the scrutiny that would surely be given to his actions.

Lesson TwoNever take what’s said at face value. Read between the lines, and try to understand the situation from your opponent’s position. Grant, who was a good card player (although a terrible businessman in civilian life), correctly interpreted the note as an effort by Lee to save face.

Grant responded:

"GENERAL, Your note of last evening, in reply to mine of same date, asking the conditions on which I will accept the surrender of the Army of N. Va. is just received. In reply I would say that peace being my great desire there is but one condition I insist upon, namely: that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms again, against the Government of the United States, until properly exchanged. I will meet you or will designate Officers to meet any officers you may name for the same purpose, at any point agreeable to you, for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms upon which the surrender of the Army of N. Va. will be received. Very respectfully your obt. svt. U. S. GRANT Lt. Gn."

Grant always has his goal clearly in mind:  Achieving the surrender of Lee’s army. He sees that Lee seeks to save face, so, by suggesting generous terms (just go home and agree not to fight us any more), Grant is leaving Lee with a way out. So, Lesson Three comes directly from the 5th Century B.C. and Sun Tzu’s Art of War: “When you surround an enemy, always allow them an escape route. They must see that there is an alternative to death.”

Think about how this applies to business. If you destroy your opponent in negotiation or in litigation, have you made an enemy, or a friend? Are they likely to fight harder if they think you will offer reasonable terms, or if you try to eviscerate them?  And what is the better approach if you think you might have to deal with them in the future?  (Remember:  Gordon Gekko ended up in jail.)

There is a caveat to this line of thinking.  Aggressive negotiators see negotiation as a battle to be won, and not as a cooperative exercise to reach a mutually agreeable result. If you’re dealing with an aggressive negotiator as opposed to a cooperative one, and you offer lenient terms, the aggressive negotiator will likely view that as a weakness to be exploited.  That can easily throw the negotiation off the rails, and is a principal reason why aggressive negotiators often self-destruct.  This is why it’s important to listen carefully and decipher the message behind the message…which Grant has done so far.

Here’s Lee’s next move:

"I received at a late hour your note of today—In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the Surrender of the Army of N. Va—but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the Surrender of this Army, but as the restoration of peace should be the Sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that end. I cannot therefore meet you with a view to Surrender the Army of N–Va—but as far as your proposal may affect the C. S. [Confederate States] forces under my Command & tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 A m [sic] tomorrow on the old stage road to Richmond between the picket lines of the two armies."

Lee is continuing his effort to save face, but he’s also refusing to fold his hand just yet.  He wants to see what he can salvage from the situation. The key, though, is his agreement to meet with Grant, which Grant correctly interprets as a meeting that’s likely to lead to the end of hostilities, his ultimate goal. But now Lee is taking a somewhat aggressive position (I’m really not here to talk surrender, only the restoration of peace).

Faced with a mildly aggressive communication, Grant employs what we now know as “tit-for-tat” negotiation theory:  Always respond to an aggressive move with a proportionately aggressive move.  Then, if your opponent returns to a cooperative posture, you do so as well. Grant responds:

"Your letter of today is received. As I have no authority to treat on the subject of peace the meeting proposed for 10 a.m. to-day could lead to no good. I will state however General that I am equally anxious for peace with yourself and the whole North entertains the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down their Arms they will hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of lives and hundreds of Millions of property not yet destroyed. Sincerely hoping that all our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life I subscribe myself very respectfully your obt. svt. U. S. GRANT Lt. Gn."

Lesson Four:  Learn how to employ tit-for-tat theory effectively. Here, Grant says, “Oh, you can’t talk surrender? That’s OK, I can’t talk peace on other terms. So let’s not meet.” But in doing this, Grant keeps his response proportional.  He does not say “go to hell” and respond with an artillery barrage (as his cavalry commander, Phil Sheridan, wanted him to do). He leaves the peace overture open.  And, as tit-for-tat theory teaches us, faced with a proportionately aggressive move, Lee returns to a cooperative posture and essentially capitulates, writing:

"I sent a communication to you today from the picket line whither I had gone in hopes of meeting you in pursuance of the request contained in my letter of yesterday. Maj Gen Meade informs me that it would probably expedite matters to send a duplicate through some other part of your lines. I therefore request an interview at such time and place as you may designate, to discuss the terms of the surrender of this army in accordance with your offer to have such an interview… contained in your letter.” (Emphasis mine.)

Grant has hooked his fish. 

In a future post, we’ll take a look at the way the actual meeting between Grant and Lee unfolded. For now, let’s think about how the preliminary communications developed, and how we can apply Grant’s techniques in our business lives:  Keep the end goal in mind.  Keep ego out of it.  Be reasonable, not obnoxious.  And know how to use tit-for-tat theory.