The 3 Stealth Negotiation Weapons of “Bridge of Spies” James Donovan


Bridge of Spies, negotiationJames Donovan, played by Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” goes to Berlin, Germany in 1961 to negotiate an exchange of “spies” between the US and the USSR.  He was more successful than anything I ever did as the FBI lead international kidnapping negotiator.  He was sent to bring home one American and came back with two, doubling the goal.  Never once did he consider the concept of BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement). At the end of this piece, I’ll share what he did in Cuba for an encore after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion (again he far exceeded his original goal).

BATNA!? We don’t need no BATNA!  It’s my contention that James Donovan would laugh at the need for a BATNA.

Here’s the situation: The Soviets are holding the downed American pilot Gary Powers, from a US spy plane. The US is holding Rudolph Abel a convicted Soviet spy.  Berlin is falling into chaos as the infamous “Berlin Wall” is being constructed.  In the  middle of this, the East Germans (who Donovan has been directed to negotiate through so the Soviets can hide their involvement) arrest an American student, Frederic Pryor, and claim he too is a spy.

As is typical, I suppose (it was for me while I was working to release American’s kidnapped by terrorists) he finds there are no straight players in the game.  Everyone he deals with has their own hidden agenda.  

Here are the 3 stealth negotiating weapons James Donovan used to far outperform his goals, making BATNA irrelevant:

Patience – Likeability – Flexibility


The key thing to remember here is the real power is in the combination.  There’s a great scene in the movie “Die Hard 3”. An NYPD Bomb Tech is marveling at the bomber’s choice of explosive chemicals. He says (paraphrased) “By themselves – nothing.  But put them together and….BANG!”

Let’s get back to James Donovan.  Patience – Likeability – Flexibility. BANG!

Patience is a weapon – IF you’re likeable.  

If you’re likeable, your hard-bargaining counterparts will stay in the game as your patience wears them down.  They won’t resent you when they finally see things your way.  They’re much more likely to feel they did it as their own choice which means they own the outcome.  Since they don’t resent you, they consequently won’t look to pay you back with retribution further down the line.  The deal-breakers are always waiting for the opportunity to disrupt your deal if you offend them.  Deal-breaking players exist in every negotiation.  Not being sufficiently respected is often enough to make them wait for the moment to disrupt the deal, frequently at the goal line.  

Another of the world’s great negotiators whom I’ve had the privilege to learn from (and work with) is Giandomenico “Gianni” Picco.  Gianni is the UN hostage negotiator who freed the western hostages from Beirut who were being held by Hezbollah, in the 1980’s.  He understood the complexities on the ground and the realities of needing to respect all parties.  He always entered Beirut from Tehran as a sign of respect.  He was infinitely patient, completely honest, and always exceedingly respectful of everyone he encountered.  Because of this, to this day, he maintains trusted relationships with the highest levels of political and commercial dignitaries in Iran.

James Donovan was both infinitely likeable and infinitely patient.   He treated everyone with respect – especially (and this may be the most important point) when they probably didn’t deserve it.  His counterparts and partners put him in lousy hotels, and may have even set him up to be mugged.  Right after he was relieved of an expensive overcoat by a roving gang of thugs in the middle of a Berlin winter, his East German contact let him know he was aware it had happened to him, and seemingly blamed him for it.  Donovan never lost a step.  He just kept moving ahead working to get what he wanted.  By this point he clearly planned not to settle for his original objective, but learned during the process there was more to be had and relentlessly (and politely) went for it.

Donovan could have become angry with everyone involved for placing him in poor positions, but he knew it wouldn’t advance what he was doing in any way.  Not getting angry probably did more to advance his objectives that any well articulated outrage.

Flexibility: Plan to succeed – and then do better.

This is also known as never be so sure of what you want that you wouldn’t take something better.

Donovan was always open to opportunity and always had his eye open for the better deal.  He knew that focus often equates to inflexibility, to wearing blinders.  By being patient he was also able to see the better deal as it unfolded in front of him.  He could stay mentally ahead of the game.

This combination of patience, flexibility and likeability also gave him the ability to express “no” to his counterpart’s proposals and keep the negotiations going.  He would never say “no” to the person; he would simply find a way to politely not accept their proposals when they fell short of what he wanted.

These 3 weapons combined enable you to get the other side to concede while also keeping the deal-killers away. Many times in negotiations you have to ask yourself – do you want to get what you want, or do you want to embarrass the other side?  You can’t have both.  The satisfaction the deal-killers get from killing your deal out of resentment will outweigh the actual loss they sustain by killing it.  

At any time during Donovan’s Berlin mission, the East Germans could have easily pulled back – and clearly thought about it at The Bridge – at the final exchange.  What happened?  I won’t spoil it.  I will tell you about James Donovan’s encore.

He was sent to Cuba in 1962 by President Kennedy to negotiate the release of 1,113 prisoners from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.  He returned with 9,703 men, women and children.  

PS: James Donovan, like Gianni Picco, also succeeded because his word was solid gold.  Nothing works long term without that.

Patience – Likeability – Flexibility.  BANG.

Thank you James Donovan.

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About The Author

Christopher Voss is the CEO of The Black Swan Group, a firm that solves business negotiation problems with hostage negotiation strategies. Chris founded the Black Swan Group, in 2008 upon his retirement from the FBI where he was the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator. Chris is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business and Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business where he teaches business negotiation in both M.B.A. programs.