In many circles people imagine Donald Trump to be a skilled and savvy dealmaker. He wrote a book about reaching agreements, and he brags ad nauseum about building a corporate and real estate empire. He talks incessantly about how under his leadership America is going to “win” every negotiation it encounters.
Right below the surface of his fire-breathing, though, his record as a negotiator is pretty questionable: He’s filed for business bankruptcy four times, has managed to burn bridges with a whole host of business partners, including Fox News and NBC, and has left relationship wreckage in his wake. While even the best negotiators occasionally end up with rotten deals, Trump’s negotiation record is pretty underwhelming; I doubt that he’ll be winning a Great Negotiator award anytime soon.
Throughout his campaign, Trump has portrayed himself as an inevitable winner – not only of the election, but of every conflict and dispute that voters can imagine. Whether he is talking about the Mexican government, journalists who cover his campaign, or inanimate objects, his attitude is disdainful and dismissive. Although his spokesman called the GOP debate that he skipped “a bad deal,” many saw Trump’s action for what it was – another attempt to shut out any voices that could be perceived as disagreeing with or critiquing him. The most powerful message, of course, is sent by his treatment of his fellow candidates for President, whom he mocks, insults, and relentlessly puts down. Implicit in this behavior is the message that the most powerful negotiators don’t actually negotiate: they either bully and intimidate others into yielding, or they walk away from the table and claim “victory.”
I observe many students enter our negotiation courses at the beginning of the semester feeling uncomfortable and intimidated by the prospect of negotiating. These students describe negotiations using adjectives like, “stressful,” “exhausting,” and even “terrifying.” They share horror stories about buying a car or asking for a raise. Rather than seeing negotiations as an opportunity to engage in joint problem-solving with someone who has a different perspective, a common initial perception is rather a dread of clashing with an “opponent” who is likely to bring a tough, take-no-prisoners attitude towards achieving a “win” at all costs.
I’m not suggesting that Donald Trump is single-handedly and personally responsible for the attitudes of these apprehensive students. But frankly, it is individuals like Trump who give negotiation a bad name.
To those of us who teach problem-solving negotiation, Trump perfectly embodies the techniques and stances we do not advocate. His behavior suggests that negotiations are always played out on win/lose terms; that the party who prevails does so by smiting or crushing the other; that any effort to make an agreement a good deal for the other party is “weak” negotiating. Treating the other with respect and dignity and trying to forge an agreement that works for them (instead of one that just coerces them) is derided as “politically correct.”
The problem is that bullying is a bad strategy. Sometimes, it’s bad in the short term; almost always, it backfires in the long term. And there is nary a negotiation expert in the country who would tell you that railroading the other side is a “best” or “recommended” practice – in negotiation or in life.
Of course, I would like to believe that in his own business dealings, Donald Trump is not the cartoon-style hard bargainer that he portrays himself to be in his campaign rhetoric. But by boasting and speaking hyperbolically about the weakness of his opponents, he disrespects his current and former business partners and reinforces a misperception that many already hold about the qualities of a great negotiator. Tough-talk and an us/them mentality might have immediate appeal in the context of an electorate bent on seeing the world in terms of winners and losers, good guys and bad guys, cops and robbers. Real policymakers know that the world is more complex than that. And so does most of the electorate, once leaders invoke images of the complexities of real life instead of the easily assessed images of competitive sports or video games. For national and global negotiations in which a President must participate, skills of careful listening, creativity, empathy, and effective assertion (as opposed to untempered aggression) are the ones that matter. Bullying – whether by dint of word, economic measures, or force – is a losing strategy with a poor track record of success in the years since World War II.
Much of Trump’s success so far in this campaign season must be owed to the echo-chamber nature of social and traditional media outlets; his omnipresence on Twitter; his uber-confident – but puzzling – tendency to shy away from substantive engagement and toward name-calling and personal attacks. Perhaps maintaining control of his own story through these media channels is in fact part of Trump’s strategy at the moment. By contrast, though, Presidents do not have the luxury of engineering the dynamics of conflict to suit their views or purposes. No amount of forcing, berating, chiding, or mocking is likely to persuade or force the Mexican government to pay for a wall. Nor will such measures slow China’s assent or bring ISIS to its knees. Addressing the complex problems confronting the United States takes statesmanship. This means engaging others where they are at, finding ways to use the considerable clout of the U.S. to advance our national interest and to present choices that are easy for our allies and our enemies to say yes to.
If Trump is to be successful as a President and not just as a candidate, his dealmaking toolbox will need to use more than a sledgehammer. The time has come to tell us, Mr. Trump, with sophistication and specificity, why should we believe you when you say you are a savvy dealmaker? The time has come to stop reinforcing the one-dimensional, simplistic, and wholly unrealistic notion of “negotiator as vanquisher” that you tout with pride. What real strategies would you use to strengthen ties with our allies and build bridges with our adversaries?
Mr. Trump, don’t just tell us that you’ll make America great again and expect us to trust you. Great negotiators build trust through their words and through actions. If you respect the people you seek to serve, be straight with us. Show us, tell us, how you will engage a complex nation and world with more than just bluster, puffery, and threats.