The Real Art of the Deal: Rich Cohen on Herbie Cohen, the world's best negotiator
"His big rule in life is the key to success is to care but not that much."
Herbie Cohen is an American original and one of the greatest experts on negotiation of our time. From modest roots in Brooklyn, Cohen went on to advise everyone from the FBI to Ronald Reagan to the NFL Players’ Association, using techniques learned from everything from his childhood experiences to The Godfather to World War II. His runaway bestseller, You Can Negotiate Anything, intended for both businesspeople and the general public, literally defined a new genre. In a heartfelt new book, The Adventures of Herbie Cohen: World’s Greatest Negotiator, his youngest son, the best-selling author Rich Cohen tells his father’s uniquely American story, which predates today’s “gig economy” by decades, shares what it was like to grow up with a legendary negotiator, and offers tips his father taught him. I caught up with Rich to talk about his father and what the guru says makes for a great negotiation.
Octavian Report: You’ve written before about different aspects of your family’s fascinating background, but what brought you to tell your father’s story?
Rich Cohen: To me, his story is the classic American story of hard work, the American dream, and luck and that he had this incredible career coming out of nowhere. His mother's entire side of the family was killed in the Holocaust except for her. And his father was working on a dock to get enough money to come to America in 1910. And then he winds up representing the United States at the START Talks. It's like this incredible “only-in-America” tale that people have forgotten. Watching him live his career and also his whole philosophy about businesses, has given me a lens onto the whole world.
And I feel like his story is behind every other story I've ever written that's worked. In The Fish That Ate the Whale, I felt I understood Zemurray [ed. note—the man who took control of the United Fruit Company] and what drove him from Russia, more because of my father’s family Also, in The Record Men, Leonard Chess was a Polish Jew who recorded the first rock and roll. And Jerry Weintraub whose parents were immigrants. So, I feel like this is the greatest story I know. And it's the story underneath how I understand the world works.
And my father's very, very funny! He’s always getting into crazy adventures. You send the guy to the store for milk and he comes back with some epic tale of something that happened. So, he's just real good material.
OR: He seems ahead of his time in that he created a career as a freelance “business consultant” and personality.
Cohen: He went to law school for a stable career, but he was the definition of freelance. He depended on people coming to him and hiring himself out. My sister's a partner at Sullivan Cromwell. That's the dream that my father wished for, but his life was like a total gig life. When I was a kid my brother tried to convince me that our father was a cocaine dealer. And he's like, "Think about it. He'll be gone for two months at a time and then he is home for two months doing nothing. And he either can't fall asleep or he can't stay awake. And he's always got all this cash or he is completely broke. The guy's a cocaine dealer." But I feel like now everybody lives this life. And I feel like I've been living it too since I quit my only real job I ever had when I was 24 years old. And it's scary because there's no structure to back you up, but the good thing is you're free to do what you want.
OR: Your father is one of the a top negotiation expert. You write he was involved with a major league baseball strike, then Carter's negotiations with the Iranians. Was he at the summit with Gorbachev and Reagan?
Cohen: I don't think he was at the summit. He came after the summit, Reagan said “Let’s ge rid of all the nukes” and then the advisors freaked out. They brought in people to actually sit down and make deals with the Russians. He was part of that group that came after the summit. I think only a guy like Reagan could have done that and broken that logjam that had existed. So, afterwards, it had to be worked out.
OR: How did you father get started?
Cohen: When he worked at Sears, he always did their deals. And they would hire him out to all their subsidiary companies. They were like Amazon at the time. They owned everything. And then he said, "There's no reason for me to be getting a regular paycheck and then Sears is making all this money on me. I'll just hire myself out."
He’d start out with a company, meet their executives and train them. And then at some point, they would ask him, “Can you do this for us?" And it progressed to other organizations, In my research for the book I got a letter from the guy who used to run the SWAT team in Chicago telling me that my father trained their SWAT team in how to deal with hostage situations.
Same withthe FBI. He started out pretty early training the FBI agents in how to negotiate hostage situations and then ultimately they started bringing him in to do it.
With the Football Players’ Association, the union brought him in to talk to their head Gene Upshaw. My father was very excited to be working with Gene Upshaw. He was a big Raiders fan. And then they said, "Would you sit down with us and help us represent us in these negotiations?" So he worked on whatever interested him, he discovered the beauty of the freelance thing.
OR: And you tell the story that he predicted the release of the hostages in Iran to within seven minutes. How did that happen?
Cohen: It’s so interesting. It was his whole thought process in the negotiating, which is “it doesn't matter if you're negotiating for hostages or for a refrigerator, it's all the same.” So, he started with that then said that as far as the Iranians are concerned (and he'd been criticized for this in later years)s, they have 66 rugs for sale. So at first, when it was under Carter’s watch, what’s the first thing he says? “I'm not leaving here without those rugs.” What happened to the price? The price just skyrocketed. Then, in the run up to the next election he says "I'm not leaving the White House until the hostages are free." Carter basically held our whole country prisoner and traumatized the whole country and thus increased the price.
And for the Iranians, they screwed up in the negotiation too. They were going to get their highest price for the hostages, which would be concessions, money, whatever, before the election in November. But they waited, trying to get more, and then Carter lost the election. So, my father said, "Once Carter loses the election and doesn't have the hostages, you got to look for the next deadline." He said, "99% of deals get done within an hour of the deadline on either side of the deadline." So, the next deadline would be Reagan's inauguration.
To the Iranians, Reagan was an unknown and scary figure. He was portrayed the way Barry Goldwater had been portrayed as this crazy “shoot-’em-up.”
He gets elected and tells the Iranians,, which my father was involved in advising on, "Maybe I'll just blow up the whole market and forget the whole thing." So they wanted to get a deal before Reagan was in power. So, they were trying to get the best deal. And once they realized Carter was leaving, they had to do it as quickly as possible.
So, my father put all that together and said, "Seven minutes after the inauguration, hostages are released." I remember because I was in Hebrew school. They were released three minutes after the inauguration. They didn't want to deal with Reagan. So, that's how he figured it out. The same way he'd figure out something at Sears in Brooklyn.
OR: And you talk about how he approached negotiation as a game and also that he felt that it was a bad idea to negotiate for yourself.
Cohen: His big rule in life is the key to success — to care but not that much. But he says it in a very funny way. The problem when you negotiate for yourself isyou care too much by definition. He always says, "For some reason, when my money's at stake, it's very important to me. When your money's at stake, I care, but not that much." So, you play loose and you play easy. When you do it that way, you play better, because you’ve got to always be ready to just walk away from the whole thing.
And his other thing is never get fixed on a particular outcome. So, you go in one place, but you might come out somewhere completely different. And I think he thought Carter in a way cared too much or at least telegraphed that he cared too much.
His whole point in his business was not, I'm going to teach you how to negotiate, but I don't have to teach you how to negotiate. You already know how. You're doing it all the time, but you're doing it badly, because you don't know what you're doing. I'm going to make you aware of what you're doing. So, you can do it better and look at it not as this thing you have to go through or this chore, but as a game that you can have fun playing.
OR: Did he tell you when the light bulb went off for him that negotiation was a thing and that he was good at it?
Cohen: My father grew up with Larry King, who always insisted that it was when they were getting kicked out of school for saying a kid had died who was alive, then collecting money for his funeral. Larry said that when the principal said he was going to boot him from school, my father, very calmly said, "Yeah, what we did was wrong and we're in trouble, but you're in even bigger trouble if this happens. They're going to look at your behavior and you're going to get fired and never work again."
You have to detach yourself from your situation, put yourself in the other person's position, and see how the world looks to them to understand what they want and what they're afraid of.
My father used to cite a different incident in the ninth grade where a kid in his neighborhood took a dog hostage and said, "I will not release this dog until this girl goes on a date with me," and everyone freaked out. My father came in and got the dog released by getting the kid to agree to a lower demand — not a full-on date, but lunch with chaperones.
So, I think part of it is just his situation and his family and his personality. You put him in a room and he is trying to figure out the angles and figure out what every other person in the room is there for and what they want. He believes you're negotiating all the time. The first line of his book is, "Your world is a giant negotiating table and you're a player whether you know it or not."
OR: Are there particular people that he admired as negotiators?
Cohen: Yes. And they weren't always people he admired as people. e was really interested in Saul Alinsky because he said power is based on perception. If you think you got it, you got it, even if you don't got it.
And some of this, crazily, was his view of what happened to his family during the Holocaust. He, was very interested in what happens to people that are being crushed by institutions and seemingly have no power, and how you can have power even if you're in a weak position. You just have to recognize it. So, to him, it was about empowering people.
And when he would teach negotiation, he would start with the story from the Bible. He would start with Moses negotiating with God and convincing God not to wipe out the Hebrews after the golden calf. And by doing it, by appealing to God, just like he had appealed to the principal and saying, "Look, if you wipe out these people, you're going to have to go get a whole other people. And who's going to go with you? They're going to think, look, he's just going to bring us into the desert to kill us all. You're going to have trouble. And what are they going to say about you?" So, he appealed to God's strength. That's what he would say and so that was very appealing to him.
And he was very interested in the way Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, where we lived, was able to get people to do what he wanted through his personality. Even though he was very corrupt, and people knew what he did was corrupt, they liked him. He called it the difference between the what and the how. There was what Daley was doing, which was not always great, but there was how he was doing it, which made people feel like the city was under control. To make the case, my father would recount how he was on a flight at O'Hare, which had been sitting on the runway because of a November blizzard,which is unusual even for Chicago.And the guy next to him in the seat said, "Ugh, it never snowed this early when Daley was mayor." So even you wouldn’t think of these two people as negotiators, they show how people solve problems and deal with other people.
And he would study The Godfather. He'd have us watch The Godfather over and over again. He used to say Sonny Corleone had too much temper. ”Don't get emotionally involved. He's too emotionally involved, lets his emotions take over. He cares too much.” .And early on in the movie, Sonny talks out of turn in a negotiation and reveals what his father's thinking is. My father said the three most important things in a negotiation are time, information, and power. Sonny gave away information.
And that information winds up getting the Godfather shot. And ultimately, it sets off a chain of events that gets Sonny himself killed.
So, that's my list I have for you. Saul Alinsky, Richard J. Daley, Ronald Reagan, and Don Corleone.
OR: Which would he think is more important in a negotiation, force of charm, or the power dynamic like intimidation?
Cohen: He would say that there's hostile negotiations and friendly negotiations. He had a chapter in his book called “The Soviet Style,” where you're dealing with very hostile negotiators or zero sum negotiators. One rule for this type is never give a concession without getting something in return. Ever. Because They're going to see you as weak. And in that case, it would be less about charm.
As for as other negotiations, he popularized the phrase, “win-win.” To charm, to agree togiving even a little more than you have to or want to or have to. Because for you to come out well, the other side has to feel like they've won too. Otherwise the thing won’t last. Another thing he says says is people support that which they create. So when you're building an agreement, bring the opposition in and help them build it, or at least give them the sense that you've incorporated their ideas. Because if they help create it, they're going to want it to succeed.
So, I don't know if you call that charm or what you call that, but his idea is that you've got to be very inclusive and pull people in and you want to make people feel like they've made you stretch a little bit more than you're comfortable feeling. So, they feel like they've got everything out of the deal they can And he always told me “never ever give anyone the asking price because it will cause the deal not to fall apart.”
Cohen: He said, "Well, you think you offer the asking price, they're going to be very happy. Great, we got our asking price. No, they're going to be unhappy. They're going to think we didn't ask for enough money. We lost money on this deal. And they're going to start looking for a way to get out of it."
OR: Does your father believe there are people in the world that you just can't win with and the best thing to do is just not engage with them at all?
Cohen: Yes. One of his phrases is everything is negotiable, but I know there are foreign policy situations where military is necessary.
He would say “you couldn't really deal with Hitler before World War II in any way but with force.” They gave Hitler all kinds of concessions and got nothing in return.
OR: I guess some people talk about like a personality type where you can’t win.
Cohen: I would think he would think up to the last moment, there’s a way to negotiate with everybody, but the way to do that is speak in their language and figure out what they want. The way to do that is to not look at the world through what you want, and try to entice them with what they want. Something unexpected might move them. And you're going to want to figure out what that is. One of the moments my father is most proud of is is helping set up the Behavioral Sciences Unit at the FBI to profile serial killers and terrorists. .
You have to understand their backstories like a novel — their lives, where they come from, what motivates them - if you want to negotiate with them.
OR: Did they ever have your dad try his luck in the Middle East?
Cohen: Yes for the Americans but not the Israelis. The problem for him with Israel is he cares too much. He's too emotionally involved. He would lose his temper. All the reasons why he says you can't negotiate for yourself.
OR: You make the point that when he sold his own book, he did negotiate for himself and didn't do a very good job, right?
Cohen: The book launched a new genre. When you go to a publisher with something, they always compare it to what's already been successful. In his case it was a business book, but not written for businesspeople only. So, when a publisher finally offered a little bit of money after being rejected 22 times, he just grabbed it and got a bad contract. He should have had an agent, but he did it himself.
OR: You mention he uses the acronym “TIP” for time, information, and power.
Cohen: Yes. Information is all the stuff I've just been talking about, which is knowing the other side, what motives them, what’s happened to them in the past, and knowing every aspect of the deal
Time means not being rushed, not being on someone else's calendar, realizing that almost all deadlines are phony deadlines, and put yourself in control of the pace and the rhythm.
And power is just realizing your own power. My father would say “you always have power,” but people go into negotiations feeling like they're in a position of weakness. But they're really not in a position of weakness if they realize where they can have leverage. And that's why he starts the book with me hating to be taken out to restaurants. And I stood up on the table in a restaurant and screamed, "This is a crummy restaurant." That's how he started his book. And they dragged me out of there and stopped taking me to restaurants, showing that I actually had power in the situation to get the change I wanted.
OR: You talk about his career as a basketball coach during the war. and that when he had a bad team, he figured out how to make them win, and then he was able to do the same thing with a good team.
Cohen: Like the Donald Rumsfeld thing: you don't have the army you want. You have the army you have. Don’t set up plansbased on some ideal. Be realistic. Ia basketball team doesn't have any fast players, you don't play a game like you have fast players. You're going to get killed. You figure out how to build a game around a slow team. And that was just a natural thing that he did coaching little league sports, coaching my softball team. In any situation, you take your side and figure out how your side works and develop a unique plan for that side.
OR: Did he have a view or does he have a view on the Harvard book, Getting to Yes?
Cohen: That was around the same time and I think he was friendly with that guy. You look at it as competition. One thing about my father’s philosophy basically is that it's not a zero sum. I call it infinite sum, which is all boats rise.
So, if a book about negotiation that isn't his does really well, ultimately, that's good for him. “It grows the market. And then when I have a book, there'll be a bigger market and I don't have to create a new market.” So, he always hated when people would get upset at somebody else's success. He's like, "No, success is good for everybody. Success is contagious."
OR: It sounds like he's a pretty positive person.
Cohen: I think he's very positive. He's 89 - an age where some people get grumpy - and he's as positive as he's ever been. And that's what “win-win” is about, which he very much believes — that we all rise. And unless somebody really upsets him, he's very, very generous. Even in negotiations, he would be overly generous if he could afford to be, because it made him feel good.
OR: You also mention he was a master of compartmentalizing stress.
Cohen: I always called him a Jewish Buddhist because of his detachment and approaching life as a game. And he'd always say to us, "In this world, nobody owns. Everybody rents. Everything goes back to the real owner at the end of the game. So, don't get too attached to it." And the phrase he'd always say when we came to him with a problem is it's just a blip on the radar screen of eternity, just a walnut in the batter of life. So, that very much was his view, which is it's like a game.
And in the end of it, none of this really matters. What matters to him is just your family and how you treat people. And in the bad moments in his life, and he had them because everybody does, occasionally he would break his own rules. Get upset, get emotionally involved, do something stupid, and then regret it later. But he was very good at moving past the regret part.
OR: You mention he grew up in Brooklyn with Larry King and Sandy Koufax. Was there something in the water there?
Cohen: I should separate Larry who was truly his best friend and his gang, the Warriors. My father went to visit Larry when Larry was sick for the last time. This is how close they were and then they wouldn’t let him leave the hospital so he wound up staying in the room next to Larry. Sandy Koufax was in the larger group that hung out on this particular corner, which was 86th Street and Bay Parkway in Bensonhurst. And there was a whole group of very successful people from that neighborhood.
Elliott Gould. Vic Damone, John Franco who later pitched for the Mets, Frank Torre, Joe Torre, Gary David Goldberg.
So, I think it was this combination, which is their parents really raised them on the myth of America, which is you can do anything you want and be anything you want if you work hard enough. And they believe that. A lot of their parents in that neighborhood were immigrants And they had this very rich mix of people living closely packed together and they had great, great public schools.
And for whatever reason, they came out of those neighborhoods very hungry and very well-prepared in the way they dealt with people to go and get whatever it is that they wanted.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.