November 2015
Raphael Lapin

Negotiation, Mediation and Litigation-Avoidance Specialists Since 1995

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Dear Clients and Friends,

Russian Roulette or Predictability in Negotiations   

The recent movie "The Bridge of Spies" brings to light a critical negotiation that took place at the very height of the cold war. Join me as I extract some practical observations and lessons in this November  '15 edition of N EGOTIATION STRATEGIES. 
For your reading convenience, we also distill this into a brief lessons learned at the end of the column.
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With Best Wishes 
Raphael Lapin
Russian Roulette or Predictability in Negotiations

The recent movie, "The Bridge of Spies" brings to light a critical negotiation that took place at the very height of the cold war. The negotiation involved the exchange of a Soviet spy, Rudolph Abel, captured in the US in 1957, for a downed pilot of a U-2 "Dragon Lady" spy aircraft, Gary Powers, captured by the Soviets in 1960.

The situation was further exacerbated by a seemingly unrelated event - the capture of an American economics student, Frederic Pryor by the recently established German Democratic Republic (East Germany) around the same time.

The US negotiator was a relatively unknown litigator from Brooklyn, James Donovan, who was initially appointed as a public defender for Rudolph Abel in his espionage trial. By all accounts, Donovan had no formal experience or training in international negotiations, and yet was remarkably successful in bringing Powers and Pryor home.
Russian Roulette

Donovan, being a litigator, approached the negotiation with an aggressive litigation mindset. Knowing that the Soviets wanted Abel back, because they initiated the discussions, (but not knowing the extent of his importance to them), he presented them with an ultimatum. He demanded both Powers and Pryor back in exchange for Abel. (Although Pryor was being held by the GDR and not the Soviets, Donovan assumed that the Soviets had enormous power to influence the GDR). Furthermore he gave them only twenty four hours in which to respond, or the deal would be off the table.

Donovan was essentially playing a game of "chicken" to see who would be the first to blink. There was no way to predict the outcome. As the twenty four hour window was closing, the movie portrays several moments of heightened tension as the US team doesn't hear a Soviet response, and fears the worst. At the eleventh hour, the phone rings with an acceptance from the Soviets.

Donovan happened to be successful in these negotiations, but more by a game of chance than by leading and guiding the negotiations to a mutually acceptable solution and a predictable outcome. It worked to be sure, but may not always be the best approach in our business and international negotiations where a game of Russian Roulette may prove to be too costly.
Predictability in Negotiations

When a game of chance is too risky, rather than presenting demands and ultimatums, an alternate strategy is to devise creative solutions that respond to the needs and concerns of all parties to the negotiation. This problem-solving approach usually drives a more predictable outcome with fewer risks. 

Using "The Bridge of Spies" case as an example of a problem-solving approach, we would begin by examining the vital interests of each of the parties. The US wanted to bring Powers and Pryor home. The Soviets wanted Abel back, but at the same time did not wish to be perceived as entering into a prisoner swap deal with the US for fear of precedent, and the message it might send to other western countries opposed to the Soviets. The GDR wanted to be recognized and reckoned with as a sovereign entity by the West.

We might then attempt to solve this problem with a  proposal that would meet each parties' needs. We could  have suggested an arrangement whereby the Soviets would do a quiet inside deal with the GDR to hand over Powers to them. (The West would not need to know the terms and details of that arrangement). The US would then "negotiate" directly with the GDR to exchange Abel for Power and Pryor which would leave the Soviets out of those negotiations entirely.  In this way, the Soviets get Abel back without being perceived as engaging in prisoner swap deals with the West. The US brings Powers and Pryor home and the GDR are seen as a player on the international stage. This may not provide the entire solution initially, but would at least serve as the beginning of an idea that could further be refined and developed to address the needs of all parties while at the same time conforming to international conventions. 

This would have been a very different process than the crap-shoot Russian Roulette approach that Donovan adopted. Amongst the many advantages of this solution-oriented approach is that the outcome is more predictable and far less risky than the "Russian Roulette" game.

About1About Lapin Negotiation Services


Lapin Negotiation Services offers training, consulting, advising and executive coaching in negotiation, business diplomacy and dispute resolution services.


Our proprietary and aggressively results oriented services are designed to help your leadership, teams and individuals master the essential negotiation, relationship-building and conflict management skills that increase revenues, decrease the high cost of conflict  and build  strong working relationships .

Our skilled specialists will:
  • Help your organization build a highly effective negotiation competency and culture which translates into increased revenue and strong business relationships.
  • Train and prepare your sales teams for sales presentations
  • Develop high impact, customized learning systems to develop advanced skills and powerful techniques in negotiation, dispute resolution and relationship management.
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  • Facilitate, mediate and advise in dispute resolution
  • Create a culture of collaboration by guiding and training teams and divisions to engage in dialogue, to negotiate and to partner
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Raphael Lapin

Raphael Lapin, a Harvard trained negotiation and communication specialist. He is adjunct professor of law at Whittier School of Law in Southern California and visiting professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. Raphael trains and advises Fortune 500 companies and governments around the world and is the author of "Working with Difficult People" (DK Penguin Essential Managers Series)
Working with Difficult People
 Learn more about Raphael Lapin's book, "Working with Difficult People" by clicking on the image above