By Sarah Begley
May 6, 2015

As a former U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland and the Middle East, George Mitchell knows a thing or two about heated negotiations. From his work on the Good Friday Agreement to meetings with important figures on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the former U.S. Senate majority leader has had to keep calm — and try to keep everyone around him calm — while discussing deeply controversial topics. Mitchell shares a few of his secrets in his new memoir, The Negotiator: Reflections on an American Life.

Don’t be too enamored with the sound of your own voice.

Early in his career, Mitchell recounts telling his boss, then-Senator Ed Muskie, that his speeches often dragged on too long. “You’re a smart young man,” Muskie replied. “I think it’s likely that someday you’ll be in elected office, giving speeches like I have this week. When you do you’ll find that there’s nothing in the world like the sound of your own voice.”

But Mitchell learned the importance of listening after taking over Muskie’s seat in the Senate.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, when I served in the Senate I was being prepared for the Northern Ireland peace talks. There I spent hundreds of hours listening. By doing so I earned the confidence of the delegates to the talks; I learned what their concerns were; I ultimately figured out where the common ground was. The result was a peace agreement that ended a brutal long-standing conflict.

In other words, abide by the old proverb about having two ears and one mouth for a reason.

Focus on individuals.

In his many years in politics, Mitchell noticed a bad habit of public figures.

[I]t is often the case that a person speaks and then thinks about his or her next statement rather than intently listen to what others are saying; that is especially true of public figures who meet, usually briefly, large numbers of people. By the time you get to shake a person’s hand, your eyes and mind often are on the next person in line. Too many persons in positions of authority become accustomed to deference, develop excessive self-confidence, and are incapable of showing respect to others, especially those with whom they disagree. These attitudes demean the position and lessen the person’s ability to perform his or her duties.

By making others feel important, you can more easily persuade them to see your point of view.

Take big risks.

Mitchell sees chairing the Northern Ireland peace negotiations as one of the most daring of his career, noting that the conflict was “ancient, fueled by religious and other differences,” but wanted to do the best job he could in the high-stakes environment.

By far the greatest risk I took in the negotiations themselves was when I established the firm and final deadline of midnight on April 10, 1998. That was regarded by some as a desperate and dangerous move. Some British civil servants opposed the deadline; they had been engaged in trying to manage the Troubles for many years, and they feared that an abrupt end to the process would trigger an immediate return to violence more savage than ever. I shared their concern. But, I argued, without a final deadline the process was ultimately more likely to fail, producing the very result they feared.

In the end, the gamble worked, and Northern Ireland reached the Good Friday Agreement. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The Negotiator hits stands this week.


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