July 1

Let’s step back from the abyss



In the fall of 1962, the world came very close to a full-scale nuclear war. For thirteen days, from October 16 to 28, the deployment of Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba created perhaps the most dangerous confrontation of all time.

Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, justified the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba as a response to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, as well as the presence of US missiles in Turkey and Italy.

Tensions increased as President John F. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba on October 22. Both sides readied themselves for what should have been unthinkable…mutually assured nuclear destruction!

I have seldom found a reason to quote any Soviet leader, but in a letter to President Kennedy, dated October 26, 1962, I find Khrushchev’s words compelling:

Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a

moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries dispose. Consequently, if there is no intention to tighten the knot and thereby to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.

As Americans who lived through that era, we probably don’t want to give First Secretary Khrushchev much credit for the ultimate outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, his letter set the stage for a peaceful resolution.

How so? He moved the negotiation from threats, adversarial positions, and personal invectives to one of common interests.

What did Kennedy and Khrushchev have as a common interest? Simply put, to avoid thermonuclear war. Khrushchev’s reference to their positional negotiation, each of them pulling on the ends of the rope was masterful. If they continued to bristle, threaten, and demand, war was inevitable. However, by focusing on the common interest of peace, they began to move back from the abyss.

Ultimately, Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba in exchange for the US assurance that Cuba would not be invaded, and that US missiles in Turkey would be dismantled.

Clearly nothing, including the worldwide pandemic, has been so threatening to mankind as the Cuban Missile Crisis. We should all hope and pray that the peace that was rescued in the fall of 1962 will never again be so much at risk. That said, there are lessons in that crisis for all of us in dealing with adversarial relationships. These are embodied in the principles set forth in the book, Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and William Ury:

  1. Separate people from the problem. Focusing on people leads to blaming, and blaming most often ends up in personal attacks. These drive your adversary out the door, and all positive movement toward solution ceases.
  2. Focus on common interests rather than positions. Positional negotiation too often leads to gridlock.
  3. Invent options for mutual gain. With a focus on common interests, the question should be, “So…how might we get to that outcome?” This should lead to brainstorming mutually acceptable solutions.
  4. Insist on using objective criteria. Such criteria might include scientific judgment, legal precedent, professional or moral standards, efficiency, cost or revenue, tradition, or reciprocity.

These four elements were clearly evident in the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Might they be useful in resolving the societal issues facing our nation today including race relations, police authority, immigration, etc.? Might they be useful in resolving the issues that face us as leaders in our businesses today?

I suggest that we all can be blessed with more of what we desire in terms of our common interests if we put our focus on those interests rather than on our positions, separating people from problems, and seeking objective, mutually beneficial answers to the issues of our day.

Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.

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Rich Tyson

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