The World’s Greatest Negotiator — Rich Cohen
The World’s Greatest Negotiator — Rich Cohen
He advised presidents and worked as a hostage and arms negotiator … Herbie Cohen is “The World’s Greatest Negotiator.” And his story offers lessons in deal-making, risk-taking and doing business. His son and bestselling author, Rich Cohen, sits down with host Charles Mizrahi to discuss the remarkable life of Herbie Cohen — and how to negotiate like a pro.
- An Introduction to Rich Cohen (00:00:00)
- The World’s Greatest Negotiator (00:1:45)
- Brooklyn Beginnings (00:5:21)
- The American Dream (00:8:11)
- Herbie’s Negotiation Philosophy (00:20:11)
- Power Is Perception (00:29:06)
- Tips and Tricks for Negotiating (00:38:54)
- Standing Your Ground (00:47:40)
Rich Cohen is a bestselling author. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Harper’s Magazine. He co-created the HBO series Vinyl, and he’s a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. Cohen has written various New York Times bestsellers, including Tough Jews and The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones, among others. His most recent book (below) is about his father — the famous negotiator — Herbie Cohen.
Before You Leave:
RICH COHEN: Power is based on perception. If you think you got it, you got it — even if you don’t got it. And he sort of sees his mission in the world as going to people that are being bogged down by institutions or feel like they’re being stepped on and making them realize: you have power, you just have to recognize it.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: My guest today is Rich Cohen. Rich is a New York Times bestselling author and is also the co-creator of the HBO series Vinyl. Rich’s dad, Herbie Cohen, was named the world’s greatest negotiator. He taught negotiating strategy as a consultant to corporations, governmental entities and other organizations. In fact, the Carter administration called upon him to help negotiate the release of the 52 American hostages back from Iran. His latest book is titled The Adventures of Herbie Cohen: World’s Greatest Negotiator. I recently sat down with Rich, and we talked about Herbie’s upbringing in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in the 1940s and 50s. We talked about his pals, Larry King and Sandy Koufax, and how all of this impacted his life and taught him all he needed to know about negotiating.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Rich, thanks so much for coming on the show. I greatly appreciate it. And since I got the book, I read it and I said, wow, we have to have you on the show. Because there’s so much commonality between my father and your father, the fact they grew up just a few blocks from each other. And a lot of the stories that I was reading in your book could have been written about my father and his friends.
RICH COHEN: Well, we’re blessed and cursed as the sons of large personalities.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Oh, 100%. The name of the book, folks, is The Adventures of Herbie Cohen: World’s Greatest Negotiator. So, let’s start right off the bat. For those who don’t know Herbie Cohen and don’t know his book that he wrote in 1980, tell us who he was and why you wrote a book about his life.
RICH COHEN: Well, my father, he’s a business guy and he’s a lecturer and a negotiator. But he has a whole philosophy of life that I’ve lived by, that he had since he was a kid. And that’s summed up as: The secret to success is to care, but not that much. And he was just kind of a Brooklyn street kid from Bensonhurst, and he wound up working for Allstate while he was in law school just to make some extra money. And he wound up this incredibly great claims adjuster. And he went through the ranks of Allstate and ended up at Sears. They had him running all the negotiations for the whole company when Sears was the biggest company in the world.
RICH COHEN: And then ultimately, he went out on his own because Sears was lending him out to other people to do their negotiations. He was like: “I’m better off just doing it myself and getting paid directly.” And he wound up working for it seems like every Fortune 500 company. And then later, he started running programs for the FBI and CIA. And he trained a lot of cities’ like SWAT teams, how to negotiate with terrorists. He worked for the FBI, trained them on terrorists. He helped set up their behavioral sciences unit. And when I was a kid, he worked on the strategic arms reduction talks — the START talks — which are the last nonproliferation nuclear treaties that still work. They’re still active, the last ones. And so, he kind of went from Warriors clubhouse to table with the Russians in Geneva. But it was all the same philosophy.
RICH COHEN: And then he kind of became famous to the larger world when I was a kid, because he went into our basement and he came out six months later with this book he wrote — You Can Negotiate Anything — that I think sort of coined the phrase “win-win,” which is his philosophy. And it sold 2 million copies or something. And the thing that really made him famous when I was a kid is he worked for the Carter administration. They brought him in during the Iran hostage crisis. And he was frustrated by the Carter administration, the way that they were handling it. And he went on TV and he predicted the time and date the hostages would be released. And his prediction was off by just three minutes. And that’s kind of what made his name — this crazy Kreskin-like prediction.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know, I remember back I think was early eighties, reading his book and coming across it. It had such a huge title — You Can Negotiate Anything — and it had this guy on the cover like, come on, really? And you know, I remember reading the book back then — close to 40 years ago — and there was such a flavor to it that I was so, not only comfortable with, but familiar with. Because my father grew up just a few blocks away from your dad.
RICH COHEN: Well, it’s sort of common sense from where they grew up. But for a lot of people, especially moved to Chicago, it isn’t commonsense. Like questioning authority, questioning sticker price, always asking for a little more, always going back — that you can do all that. And he actually had fun doing it. His thing was, approach life like it’s a game. And I think what was new about his book was he didn’t say: “I’m going to teach you how to negotiate.” He said: “I don’t have to teach you. You already know. You do it naturally. I’m just going to teach you to be aware of what you’re doing, and then you’ll do it better and have fun doing it.” And it wasn’t an academic book. A lot of the business books had been academic. It was written like a guy talking to you from Brooklyn. And half of it was about business negotiations, half of it was about family negotiations. And it actually opens up with a story about me freaking out at a restaurant when I was nine years old.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, it’s a lot of stories, and it’s story and point, story and point — really an easy way to read. And for our viewers who have no idea what we’re talking about, we’re talking about a place in Brooklyn called Bensonhurst. Why don’t you tell us? What is Bensonhurst? Why was it so special? What made it so different? And how do they get guys like your dad, my dad and a whole bunch of other amazing people?
RICH COHEN: Well, it was right on the Narrows — you know, the Verrazano Narrows. And eventually the Verrazano Bridge went up there. I think he watched it being built, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. It was the last stop on the subway and it became like a way to kind of have a middle class or lower middle-class suburban life and still be in the city. So, my grandfather — who owned a small factory that made hat bindings in Lower East Side — would take that train trip every day. And they all lived in apartments mostly. And it was this neighborhood that was mixed. My father used to say it was “49% Jewish, 49% Italian, 2% other.” And they were this mix of Italians and Jews. A lot of them were the sons of immigrants, first generation.
RICH COHEN: My father’s parents, Yiddish was their first language. My grandfather came to America when he was like 14. My grandmother when she was like 12. They both came alone. So, it had this unique … I would say it was like the old world in the apartment and the new world in the street. And it gave them this unique perspective of like, a foot in both worlds. And it became very special and it produced a lot of really successful people of every variety — like Elliott Gould, Sandy Koufax, Vic Damone. I got the whole list when I was a kid. Sammy The Bull Gravano. Like my grandma used to say it’s terrible to have a gangster — the Jewish gangster is terrible. There should not be a Jewish gangster. But if there is, let him be the best Jewish gangster there is. And so, that’s what they were producing — the best of everything.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. From your book … Before we get into that, why did you write this book? Because you’ve written a ton of books, right? I remember reading your book Tough Jews, which is about Jewish gangsters back in the twenties and thirties. Phenomenal book. Really great stuff. You wrote books on sports. You were co-creator of Vinyl on HBO about the music industry, which I loved. I want to say it was one season, but it was really good. The way it ends, I was waiting for the next … that was a such a shame.
RICH COHEN: I know, a big bummer that it wasn’t continued.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Folks, if you could find it, I don’t know if HBO still has it on, but Vinyl was really great.
RICH COHEN: They have it on.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Oh, yeah? It was phenomenal. Just the whole music industry, the turn of 1950s or so, how the industry really grew. But that was a great thing. So, this is your latest book, right? So, you’re writing a book about your dad. Why did you write this book? What was missing?
RICH COHEN: Because I think that, in a way, I’m always telling the same story when I’m writing what I want to write. I’m very interested in stories that have an arc. They tell a story, but are also about something. You come away with a sense of a person and a different way of thinking and can expand your own way of thinking a little bit. So, I wrote a book about Jerry Weintraub, the movie producer, and he is very much the same kind of story. I wrote a book called The Fish That Ate the Whale about this guy, Sam Zemurray, who was an immigrant fruit peddler who started out selling rotten bananas and ended up taking over United Fruit. So, I feel like all these stories were kind of my father’s story, too. My father’s story, to me, was not only the greatest story I knew because I grew up with it, but was also the American dream story — which is what I keep wanting to tell over and over again.
RICH COHEN: His grandparents … his grandfather had to work on the dock in Antwerp to get enough money for six months when he was a kid to come across to New York. And his son winds up representing the United States at the nuclear talks. I mean, that’s the American dream. Then you add to it, my father’s very funny, very colorful, a lot of great stories. It’s always fun to talk about him. And he has a philosophy. It’s not empty, you know, it’s like his stuff. Like my father would always say, anything he really cares about … He loves Frank Sinatra, right? Of course. And he’d always say: “We got two kinds of music in this car: 70’s Sinatra and 50’s Sinatra. Your choice.” Whenever we liked a Sinatra song, he’d say: “Oh, it’s not about a ballpark. It’s about life.” So, to him, everything is immediately about everything. So, that’s kind of how he taught me to think. And the way businesses work, the way they grow, the way they age becomes a parable for life.
RICH COHEN: And I wrote a book called Sweet and Low, about my mother’s father. He was a guy who worked in the diner as a counterman, and he invented this sugar packet. And he invented the soy sauce packet and he invented Sweet’N Low. And the company they started called Cumberland Packing Company, which still exists. Three generations of that company are like the story of America, you know — the building, the consolidating, the dissolution.
RICH COHEN: And to me, the thing that always made America great is that you have these new people coming in who are of the first-generation mentality, like my father. So, by the time you get to the grandkids who are out surfing and taking drugs, there’s some other young 18-year-old Herbie Cohn who’s going to come around and eat your lunch, basically. So, this is that story again, just the version of it that I like best and know best.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. So, I want to talk about a few things about your father and how he negotiated and where he learned … Or really, why the soil was so fertile for this type of education that he had on the streets of Brooklyn. So, first of all, his gang. Right, it was the Warriors? They were on 86th Street and Bay Parkway. So, some members of that gang were pretty famous — or are pretty famous, right?
RICH COHEN: Yeah. Well, the people that were actually in it, the most famous one would be Larry King, who is Larry Zeiger. So, there was the gang, and then there were the people that hung around that corner — which was like a bigger thing. And that bigger group was Sandy Koufax, who hung around the corner. And the Warriors was Larry and my father.
RICH COHEN: And my father and Larry remained best friends throughout their life — which always drove my mother a little nuts. Because when my father and Larry would get together, it was like they were immediately 12 years old. I loved it because it was like: “Wow, this is what my father must have been like as a kid. Look, he’s having so much fun.” My mother hated it because she always felt like a third wheel, but everybody felt like a third wheel when they were around those two. They knew each other since they were in elementary school, basically.
RICH COHEN: So, I think it was fertile because first of all, they had very stable homes, great public schools. And yet they were completely free. They were allowed to roam and to get in trouble and to get on the train, and to sort of do what they want. And they had this mix of ethnicities and ages and all these different people that were in New York. So, it was a combination of the safety of where they lived and the hint of danger that gave them a lot of confidence to experiment, to try stuff. And for my father, who that’s his personality, he’s very outgoing. I always say he can turn any place in a Brooklyn in five minutes.
RICH COHEN: And I grew up in Illinois, and he was a complete fish out of water in Illinois, like nobody had ever met a guy like that. I think I told you this, when people would ask him where he’s from when I was a kid — because they couldn’t figure out his accent — he’d always say: “Me, I’m from Cheyenne, Wyoming” — which just brought them up cold. And they’d say: “What were you doing in Cheyenne?” He would go: “I’m a Presbyterian minister.” It became a joke. I mean, that was like a joke. He always said he was going to be buried in Cheyenne, so we didn’t have to visit his grave. When flying from New York to L.A., we can look out the window and feel like we’ve done our mitzvah, you know?
RICH COHEN: So, I think it was just a real special, unique place and time. And it was right after World War II, when the United States suddenly became the ultimate power in the world and you felt you could do anything. And then he went into the army — which is hugely important, because he got mixed up with guys from all over the country and had a totally different experience. And it was like a unique stew that that generation got. I think not having the draft … Probably a lot was lost for America when not having the draft. Because what the draft did, in addition to creating this big standing army, it created this melting pot where all these different people — he was with all guys from the South — had this same experience together. And then he felt like when he was older he could go down to the south and do business. He knew those guys. You know, he was in the army with them.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right, yeah. That is true. You know, Brooklyn was especially an amazing place back then because, you’re right, there was a great public-school system. And I think more importantly, there was a stable family life. And it didn’t matter, Jewish or Italian. It was the same type of patriarchal family. There was respect for everybody. They had large families, some had very large families, but there was really no difference. Everybody was trying to make it as a first generation American. And they totally embraced it. And being in Brooklyn — especially in Bensonhurst area — there was so much opportunity because all you do is hop on the train and you’re in the city and you were immersed in different cultures, different business — the center of the world. It really was a center of the world.
RICH COHEN: Yeah. And they were members of the Police Athletic League — which still exists — which would get them into Dodgers games, get them on the field, get them talking to pro athletes. They had all those baseball teams. They used to go into Madison Square Garden and they had bowling alleys next to Madison Square Garden. They had a friend that worked there and they would sneak through the pins — because you had to set up the pins — and that would get them into the Garden to watch a lot of basketball and a lot of hockey, weirdly. There was a lot of different hockey in the Garden.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know what I found so interesting is that — especially for my dad and his friends — it wasn’t a sense of entitlement. It was a sense of, as you mentioned in the book, about your dad, also … It was power based on perception. They walked around like they were a partner. There was never any doubt or confidence. So, if there was a situation where they had to get to the front of the line, they would walk over without any fear or anything. You know, “I’m with so-and-so.” Or: “Let me in because…” And, you know, it wasn’t even an afterthought. It was like: “Everyone else are the schmucks, they wait on line. I don’t.” It was a swagger. It really was a swagger. But it wasn’t a mean swagger.
RICH COHEN: No. And they were very comfortable in the world, comfortable in their own skin. And they felt like they could talk to anybody and go into any environment and be fine. Because I have little kids now, and kids aren’t in situations so much where they have to be alone, where you start out alone and then you wind up figuring out how the thing works and you make your way up in it, you know?
RICH COHEN: And they grew up also with those movies and with those great William Holden movies and all that culture that they grew up in. And I remember when my father was very successful, and they asked him what the most influential book was. And he’s with these other academics who had like Plato, and he said: “Lou Gehrig: A Quiet Hero.” That was his favorite book. But that’s what they grew up with — a mythology of New York and baseball. I always was envious of his childhood. And my childhood compared to now looks incredible because we were all a bunch of kids roaming around, but then they were really free. They seemed very free to me.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. And everyone was trying to make their mark. Everyone was trying to get ahead and reach the American dream. And their parents were immigrants. They were considered outsiders, they felt like outsiders. You know, they didn’t speak the language in many cases, and they didn’t know the American customs. And it was a tough life. And the kids just took to it like a fish in water.
RICH COHEN: Yeah. Well, here’s one of the great things I got from my father that’s connected to that, I think. A lot of people, when their friends are very successful, they’re happy, but maybe not that happy. You know what I mean? They feel like it makes them look bad, or it could have been them. And I remember expressing that sentiment when I was a little kid about somebody that made a team I didn’t make. And my father scolded me and he said: “Someone’s going to be successful. Wouldn’t you rather it be somebody that you’re friends with and someone you know, than some stranger? And the attitude was the more your friends do better, you do better. Everybody’s going to rise up together, you know? And now it’s more like this feeling of limitations — which is, if you get something, it’s taken away from me. He still has the opposite view, which is: My friend does well, it’s good for me. We pull each other up.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. It’s a whole team effort. It just reflects on you. I know this guy. It’s a big sign. There’s no bitterness. There’s very little, if any, envy. It’s like, isn’t that great? It’s one of us.
RICH COHEN: Yeah. Well, I was going to tell you before because you mentioned going to the front of the line. So, this is what I always … I just forgot it. We went to Epcot Center when I was a kid and my father was working down there. I was maybe 12. And with me, my whole family, plus my grandmother — my father’s mother — and we waited in line for this big ride for like 40 minutes. And then, they announced that the ride had broken and was closed.
RICH COHEN: So, my father disappears and then reappears at the head of another line — like he’s cut the whole line. And he’s like: “Get in the line, get in the line!” My mom’s like: “I will not get in the line. That is wrong! That is morally wrong.” And my father was like: “No, no, we already did our waiting. We waited for 40 minutes. We paid that bill. Now we’re taking…” And it was turning into a huge philosophical split in the family — who would go with my father and cut the line because we already did our waiting? And who would refuse, like my mother, because it was morally wrong?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Oh, I would just like your mom because my mom was the same way. She used to just turn red. There used to be a long line in the restaurant. My father used to walk in and get a table. “Come on.” “We don’t have reservations.” “Don’t worry about it, come on.” Get to the front. We got a table. He’d be talking to the maître d, they’d be friends, and my mother would be like: “Oh, my gosh, I’m not walking in front of all these other people.” And I became like her. My wife yells at me, she mocked me that, “you should be more like him.”
RICH COHEN: Same with me. I mean, try when your father wrote You Can Negotiate Anything, and it’s like the number one book in the country. Try going in to negotiate for a car. You can’t do it. It’s too embarrassing.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: If you had to wrap it up, for those who didn’t read your dad’s book and didn’t know what kind of a negotiator he was, what does he bring to the game that anyone could take? Because you say it’s a lot of common sense. It’s a lot of what they grew up in. What’s the take away on that?
RICH COHEN: Well, he’s got a lot of little tricks that really worked. But the big thing is, I always thought of him as kind of a Jewish Buddhist. So, he himself knows nothing about Buddhism and would laugh at that. But it’s all about detachment, about not caring very much about, like you said, looking at his A game. So, his whole thing is don’t become fixated on a particular outcome. Be ready to improvise. Always be ready to walk away. Always be ready to not respond. You know, somebody gives you a deadline — that’s their deadline. There’s a real deadline, that’s not it. I remember when I was a kid, he had a deadline to write a second book, and he was really late and he wanted to do something. My mother said: “You can’t. You have to do this. You’ve missed the deadline.” And he said: “And what happened?” She said: “Nothing.” He goes: “Then that really wasn’t the deadline, was it?”
RICH COHEN: I mean, that was always his attitude. So, he thinks having fun is like a huge, important part of being a success in business, and really stepping back … And that’s why he always said: “You can never negotiate for yourself,” because when you negotiate for yourself, you suddenly care way too much. You squeeze the wheel too tight.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You’re too emotionally involved. I am a terrible, terrible, terrible negotiator. I give in. I just walk. I don’t like confrontation. But when my kids ask me to negotiate on their behalf and ask what to say, what to offer or my wife or friends … I’m great. But as soon as I become involved, I’m terrible. I pay the first price and I’m done.
RICH COHEN: That’s me too. The good thing about my dad is he’s not a hard ass negotiator. He doesn’t believe in the win-lose, because he thinks the win-lose is going to turn out eventually into a lose-lose. You can’t humiliate the other guy. You’ve got to make the other guy walking out feeling pretty good about what happened. Otherwise, a deal is going to fall apart. And you always get a little extra at the end, just to make everybody feel happy about what happened here today. And then it will last.
RICH COHEN: And another thing he said that I always think of is: “People support things they help create.” So, if you’re working out a deal, you don’t want to dictate terms. You want the other guy to be involved — man or woman be involved. I shouldn’t say guy. And take their suggestions and incorporate them and use what you can, because then they’ll feel like they helped create the thing and then they’ll have a motive in making the thing stick.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. You know, back in the early eighties when the Reichmann family owned nine buildings in New York, the Olympia York, they were just growing powerful. They did Canary Wharf and they were just amazing. And Albert Reichmann was a very, very tough negotiator. He didn’t leave a crumb on the table. And when the tide turned, they took their pound of flesh back. You know, they didn’t give him anything. It’s something that the banks remembered and they were not … He didn’t give a crumb to them, they made sure not to give a crumb back to him. In fact, took a little more than they should have.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But yeah, it’s where you both walk away smiling. I think that’s one of the things that I remember reading in your dad’s book and seeing how my father used to negotiate. It was never something where, it’s like in the movies or in TV, where it’s a tough negotiation and you sit on one side of the table, they sit on the other. You offer apples, they offer bananas, and you settle on oranges — not the way it was. Every time I would see my father negotiate, they used to be laughing at the end. And he’d go: “Come on, come on. What could you do for me? Let’s work this out that we both walk away happy.” It was never like hard statements — “Either this, or we’re done.” It was always: “Come on, what can you do?”
RICH COHEN: Well, he’d call that hard negotiation “the Soviet style.” And he explained why it never worked, because the Soviet Union collapsed. And he would always say when people treated him like that — when they dictated terms — he would always say, in that case: “Better be dumb than be smart.” And he would always say: “I don’t understand. I don’t get what you just said. Can you help explain it to me? I’m not that smart.” You know, and that would immediately disarm the other side. And what he would say to me is the most important words when you negotiate are “who?” “huh? and “wha?” and “I don’t get it.” And you usually figure out who you’re dealing with and what’s going to matter to them. But he would say that that Soviet style can be very successful in the short term and in the long term is going to come back and bite you, like you said, with the real estate. And it’s also just a kind of terrible way to live your life.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. When you’re in that situation, I’ve found that if you walk away in a negotiation where you win-lose — I wouldn’t say win-lose — it would be a situation where win, and there’s bitterness. You agree on something, but the other person wasn’t involved. They felt like it was shoved down their throat. They felt cheated. They felt that they got the short end of the stick. It always comes back to bite you in the ass somehow. I don’t know how, but the way the laws of the universe work, it always winds up on your front door, maybe five years, ten years or 20 years. And what’s so amazing is people don’t forget that. They don’t forget when they were taken advantage of or felt that they were taken advantage of in a deal. And it’s payback.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And I’ve seen so many times … I would ask someone about a certain so-and-so for a referral and they would just you know, they wouldn’t say anything, they’d just give me a nod of the face or grimace or something. I said: “Why do you say that?” And they go: “I’m not saying anything. I’m just saying, you know, I started dealing with the guy, and the guy was not a good guy.” You never know the repercussions of how you could screw yourself up and how many deals you could lose in the future — or jobs you could lose, or anything you lose — just because someone on the other side of the table felt that you got the better end.
RICH COHEN: Absolutely. And one thing my father always emphasized to me is that in the end, you can always make more money. Money’s not the most important thing. You can make more money. There are more important things like time and your relationships. He started his book, the first negotiation he writes about is Abraham negotiating with God.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. Sodom and Gomorrah.
RICH COHEN: About … Yeah, Sodom and Gomorrah. Because to him that’s the biggest example of power is based on perception. Can you imagine a bigger power differential than God and Abraham? But Abraham appeals to God — like, think about your reputation, God. What will the people say if you wipe out all these innocent people? It’s interesting that there’s different ways you can appeal to people other than just hammer them.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know, Moses does the same thing when God wants to wipe out the people after the Golden Calf…
RICH COHEN: He talks about that, yeah.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: He says: “God, what are the Egyptians going to say? You took them out of Egypt to kill them all?” And, you know, that’s a good point.
RICH COHEN: Yeah. And he says: “Think about all the time you put in, you’re going to have to start all over with a whole other people. And what do you think, they’re going to go with you? They think you’re just going to bring them out to the desert and kill them all.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. It’s funny, I didn’t even think about that, but yeah, it’s so true. But I’ve always found that most good people, they put on a face when they have to negotiate — which from your father’s perspective was … And I think that’s the fun part of it. It shouldn’t be a full-contact sport. You’re not going to play football with the guy. You’re dealing with people at the end of the day. And they have their needs. They have their wants. They have their ambitions. They have their fears. Just work with them, you know, pick that up.
RICH COHEN: Right. And his whole thing was: To understand the price, you have to understand the player. I always said it was like radical empathy. Put yourself in that person’s shoes and see how the world looks to them and then you’ll figure out what they care about and then you’ll be able to deal with them. Because if you’re just dealing about them in your own terms, they might not respond to that. And you got to find the thing that they do care about.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And so many times it has nothing to do with the money. It has nothing to do with the money. There was one deal I once did with someone and the whole thing came out to: “I’ll donate X to a charity of your choice.” They just wanted to get the recognition and felt that they weren’t getting the recognition. I said, you know what?
RICH COHEN: And they wanted to say that it wasn’t the money by doing that, to let you know that I care about something else.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, and it worked out. I wrote the check and I felt good, and that was it. I got a slightly better deal. But the point was that it wasn’t about the money. The guy felt that he was not being recognized and we couldn’t settle it based on the numbers in the math. So, he took an offramp and said: “Let’s do this.” I thought it was so brilliant. I’ve used that many times. I said: “You know what? What’s a couple of dollars here or there? It’s not going to matter. Let’s close this deal.”
RICH COHEN: And then it’s not about keeping score. It’s like, off the clock, somehow.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, it’s a great thing. And one thing in your book that you mentioned was the whole thing about the perception of power. When you talk about your dad as a kid, I think he was nine years old — crossing guard, puts on the sash.
RICH COHEN: Yes.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That, to me, says everything. Why don’t you share that with us?
RICH COHEN: Well, my father’s whole thing is about power. So, he says power is based on perception. If you think you got it, you got it — even if you don’t got it. And he sort of sees his mission in the world as going to people that are being bogged down by institutions, or feel like they’re being stepped on and making them realize: You have power, you just have to recognize it. And when he met Larry King — this is the story of how they met — Larry was called Larry Zeiger at the time. That was his name. And Larry and my father had both gotten into trouble at school. And as a punishment, they were made crossing guards. And Larry was complaining as a kid that this is busy work, they’ve got to wake up early, it’s a waste of time, it’s stupid job, unnecessary. And my father explained that he believed that the job actually was good and had a tremendous amount of power, if you recognize it.
RICH COHEN: And they got into an argument and they made a small bet. My father, to prove it, took a stop sign, went outside and just stopped traffic for many, many minutes. And very quickly there was a huge traffic jam. People were screaming and yelling. Adults were getting in fights on the side of the street … Until the teacher came out and they had their sashes ripped off — my father said it was like being kicked out of the military. They ripped off their sashes. But my father proved to Larry that power is based on perception.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And they we were nine years old or something at the time?
RICH COHEN: Yeah, that’s how they met.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And I think also you mentioned in the book … At the convention, I think it was, where Larry went up on stage and told your father: “You can’t go up on stage. There’s no way, there’s security.” Al Gore was there, he was vice president at the time. “You can’t go up” and your pop didn’t listen to that.
RICH COHEN: Well, it was a Democratic convention in New York, in Madison Square Garden. My father and Larry had had dinner. Larry was going to do a show from the Garden. And my father said: “I will meet you on stage.” And now the thing about my father is, all you have to do, if you want to go somewhere, is say: “You’ll never get in.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Oh, that’s a challenge.
RICH COHEN: And he always says: “What, I can’t get in?” He says: “No, you can’t get in. I can get in. You can’t get in.” So, to Larry, he said: “I’ll meet you on stage.” Larry said: “There’s all this security. You don’t have credentials. I couldn’t blah, blah, blah, blah.” And my father said: “I will see you there.” And Larry said: “You’ll never get in.” He’s like: “I’ll never get in!?”
RICH COHEN: And Larry tells this story in one of his books. He looks over and my father just walks up and he’s on stage. And the story — because I was already a reporter, then. I met a reporter who had seen it happen. And basically, my father had gone up to the security guy with a notebook and a pen and started asking him millions of questions about the shifts, how many people in each shift, and the guy just assumed my father was the boss and treated him like he was the boss.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I want to interject. Your father did not misrepresent and say: “I am your boss.” It was all the perception of the guy and he wasn’t going in with “I am your boss,” fake credentials — none of that.
RICH COHEN: No, no. And the guy answered all those questions and he said: “You are doing a great job. Keep it up.” And then the guy was happy and he walked in.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s just hysterical. I’ve seen it so many times with my father when he used to do that. We were once at the Israeli day parade in New York. And the security was immense. My father just — there was a thing, and he just walked right through and he started talking to the guy in Hebrew, and they assumed that he was somewhere with the Israeli intelligence. “Go on, let’s go.” We all cross the street and there’s a whole gang of people waiting. He didn’t finish anything. They just took his word for it. But it was just a demeanor. It was, like I said, a swagger — fake it till you make it. And it’s absolutely amazing.
RICH COHEN: Yeah. And you’re right that it’s no lies or anything, the other person does the assuming based on how this person is perceived by them.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: They fill in the blanks. You’re just there. And they’re like: “Well, the guy’s wearing a suit and tie and he has a notebook. He must be important.” Never misrepresented. But that’s the other guy’s problem. He sees it as that and just go along with it.
RICH COHEN: Yeah. And there is an aspect of … You said something earlier. I would get worried applying for a job. And my father would say: “Listen, 98% of the people in the world are schmucks. They’re morons. You’re already way ahead just by showing up. You know, you’re looking at it wrong.” You’re imagining some geniuses out there. They’re idiots.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know, I tell my kids … It’s so funny you say that. One of my sons just got poached from a company and he goes: “Well, I didn’t know all this.” I go: “Listen to me. The fact that you just show up and you return the call, not 9:00, you return the call at five tonight. The guy tells you want your 8:45, be there 8:30. Because showing up is 90% of it.” 90% of the people are even bothering or they come late or they don’t come prepared or they don’t come dressed properly. You just beat them by getting there. And it’s such a low barrier to entry that people just don’t get it.
RICH COHEN: Yeah. Well, one thing he said to me, just a little practical thing just the other day was: If you show up in a meeting and you’re 10 minutes late because of something you can’t help — traffic. People are a little bugged. You come in and you apologize and say: “Oh, geez, I’m so sorry. I’m 30 minutes late.” And they go: “Oh, no, you’re not 30 minutes late. You’re only 10 minutes late.” And they wind up apologizing for you.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I’ve got to write that down. That’s outstanding. I told my boys, I said: “You know, guys, if you need to be at a meeting…” Because I remember reading about Vince Lombardi, great coach of the of the Green Bay Packers and a legendary coach. He had Lombardi time. It was 15 minutes early. So, if he wanted you there at 8, that meant 7:45. And everyone had their watches turned to Lombardi time. And I once had a salesperson who was with me. And I came on time to a meeting with a big allocator. And this salesman, he was furious at me. He worked for me, and he taught me great lesson. He goes: “No, you come on Lombardi time.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You just don’t come to play the game at the time. You get there, you relax, you drink your coffee, you’re settled. Let the other guy become unsettled. And I’ve always tried to take that any time we have meeting, always the prep. Just get there more relaxed. And it’s nothing more than that. These aren’t things that one needs to be a master negotiator. These are just simple things. But, as you said, most people are schmucks. Not schmucks, in a sense, but they just don’t know. They just don’t know.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I’m sorry to turn this interview where I’m speaking too much, but you just bring so many memories back. One of my sons got an interview and he went through three interviews. And he was just out of high school, he was a brilliant kid. This job was way above him, but it was giving him a shot. And he didn’t get it. And I found out from the person who shepherded him through. I said: “Why didn’t he get it?” He goes: “Well, he had a bad interview.” I said: “What are you talking about?” He goes: “Yeah, the fourth interview, he came late. It was 9:00. He came 9:03.” So, I call my son Richie. I said: “Richie, what happened?” He goes: “No, Pop, I was there like 10 to 9, but I had to go to the bathroom. Then I came out. And I go: “Rich, that lost you the job. From that time, never be late. If you have to go, don’t go. Or get there half an hour or an hour early.” And that lesson, hopefully stuck with my kids, but it sticks with me that just showing up — these aren’t difficult things to do.
RICH COHEN: Well, I feel the same way. And I’ll tell you what made me realize it — which is I used to be late a lot, I’m talking about when I’m 21 or 22 years old. And I went to meet somebody and they were like 30 minutes late. And it made me so mad because I thought: “This isn’t just somebody late, this is somebody that doesn’t give a crap about my time.” Like I’ve got stuff to do and I’m sitting here. This is somebody that has no respect for me, doesn’t look at me as my time is as important as their time. I’m on the same level as them. And I thought, every time you’re late like that, that’s how you’re starting. You’re putting yourself in a hole where the person thinks: “This person has no respect for me.”
RICH COHEN: And I was never late again. When I go meet someone in the city, because I’m always in the city, I usually get there like 30 or 40 minutes early. Because you never know about traffic, and I just walk around, you know. And also, I’ll say my favorite quote about Vince Lombardi, which is: “He never lost a game, but occasionally he ran out of time.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. Good point. It’s great.
RICH COHEN: I think he was from Brooklyn, too.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: He was Sheepshead Bay.
RICH COHEN: Yeah, he grew up on a farm in Sheepshead Bay.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Back then it was rural, yeah. Well, that’s why “Sheepshead Bay,” right? They had a racetrack there. I grew up a little from there. Yeah, it was a pretty rural place. So, your dad is, what, 88 years old or so?
RICH COHEN: 89.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: 89. God bless. And is he still active in in terms of…
RICH COHEN: Yeah, actually, just this weekend, it’s the 100-year anniversary of when my grandmother arrived in America — 1922 in June, you know, whatever, 11th. So, we all got together — all her descendants. And my father was sort of the M.C. and told a lot of funny jokes and stories. And we all got up and shared reminiscences about our grandma Esther.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s beautiful. That’s really nice. So, sum of this up for me, Rich. In terms of if I wanted some quick things to negotiate, just little tricks — not little tricks, but little stepping points — on how to be just a better negotiator, what would you say? And I’m negotiating for myself.
RICH COHEN: First, just don’t attach so much to the outcome. Don’t really care. Be willing to walk away. Two, don’t rush. Don’t hurry. Sometimes the best response is no response. Sometimes the best thing to do is wait. One thing that my father always told me was that to be a successful negotiator, you have to learn to live with ambiguity. That means you don’t know what’s going to happen. That might be like: “I really want this house, I haven’t heard. I’m going to call them.” Don’t do that. Just wait. And basically, the price of ambiguity is stress. So, you have to learn to live with that stress. Now, you don’t have to live with that stress, if you want. You can go ahead, but you’ll paid for it. And when doing a negotiation — I really realized this when buying a house — you’ve got to make the other side feel like they stretched you a little further than you wanted to go. So, they feel like they got the most out of it. Sometimes you think: “I’ll just offer the asking price,” especially in a hot market…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Worst thing in the world.
RICH COHEN: The other person thinks: “I didn’t ask for enough money and I lost money on this deal and I want out of it.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Think about how many times … If I’ve made an offer, and people have hit the offer — lifted the offer — and I look, I said: “Oh, not good. I didn’t ask enough.” You know, you feel like you got taken.
RICH COHEN: Both sides have to feel that the other side went just a little further than made them comfortable. And then you can get a good deal.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. And your dad went around the country — really around the world — teaching. When he was teaching how to negotiate, what was the handicap that most people came with, that they had to relearn? Or they looked at this and said: “Wow, this is something that I never thought of.”
RICH COHEN: Well, one thing that I remember is that they were very intimidated by any kind of put-on authority. Just like we talked about how he could put on authority and other people would just accept what he said. And the example he gave was going in to Sears, because it was an experience everybody had. And they had a big price on it. And they acted as if that price was put there by the big printer in the sky. It couldn’t be questioned.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It was authoritative. It said $8.99? There’s no question, you cannot get nickel less.
RICH COHEN: Right. And his whole thing was, this thing looks like it was put there by God. It wasn’t. It was like three or four people in a room that randomly came up with it. This price itself was a product of a negotiation. And anything that’s a product of a negotiation, you can negotiate. And he gave a series of tips just specifically for that, that I remember. One is, say: “What if I bought ten of these? How much would it be then?” Because you’ll get a different price. “What’s the sale price?” He said because it’s always about to go on sale, they’ll give you that price. “How much for a floor model that’s blemished?” And he said: “If there is no blemish, consider creating a blemish.” Very practical stuff. But he thought it was all about something bigger.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know, I came from a family of four boys — myself and three brothers. So, it was my brother’s bar mitzvah. We went to a clothing store and each suit, I don’t know, said $150 or something. So, my mother goes to my father: “Billy, it’s too much.” He goes: “Don’t worry about it.” So, the guy sized us all up, spent an hour or so and worked on us. And the guy goes: “All right, it’s $150 X 5 — it’s $750.” My father goes: “No, too much. I can’t afford it.” He goes: “No that’s the price it goes.” My father goes: “All right, that’s the price for one. But I’m going away with five. You’re making a sale on five.” He goes: “I can’t do anything for you guys.” My father goes: “All right, boys, get your stuff.” And my mother is like: “What!? The bar mitzvah is a week away. We need a suits!” He goes: “Forget it. We’ll go somewhere else. Don’t worry about it.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And I remember taking it off and I’m thinking: “Oh, gosh, we spent so much time. I really loved the suit.” It was probably some velvet suit, back in the seventies. As we’re taking it off and the guys taking it from us, my father goes: “Keep going, let’s go.” We’re walking out. As we’re walking out, manager comes running: “Wait! Come back here. What do you want to pay?” “We want to pay $80.” The guy goes: “How about $90?” My father shakes his hand. Done. Wrap them up.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And I remember, I was maybe 14 years old, thinking: “Holy smokes.” Everything is negotiable up until the last moment — if you believe that you don’t need it. And here this guy, I don’t know what commission they were working on, but they were not going to let five suits walk out the door, regardless.
RICH COHEN: Well, actually, he speaks specifically about that. My father had a technique that he calls “the nibble” — where you go into a suit store and you spend a lot of time. That’s the key. You’ve got to make the other side invest a lot of time. And he says: “You try on every different suit. The guy’s getting totally sick of you.” You get to the point where, he always said: “Where you’re in the three-way mirror and they got your pants hitched up, the tailor’s at your legs and he’s got needles in his mouth.” And then you say: “What kind of ties will you throw in with this?” He’s like: “I guarantee you’re getting 3 to 4 ties.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Oh, 100%, yeah. I think it just comes down to a lot of confidence and it’s a swagger. It’s really a swagger. And I think back, when I started a money management business, I was only 22 years old. I didn’t have a track record. I had nothing, but I just had confidence. And I used to walk into people my father’s age and older and ask them to open an account with me. They go: “What’s your track record?” I go: “Don’t worry, I got your back on this one.” And it was just like that, you know? I just faked it till I made it. I just exuded confidence. And people want to invest with people who are confident. And I was able to raise money with just showing up. I didn’t have to have a college degree, that’s for sure. I just had some experience trading on the floor, but it was a sense of that swagger. I walked in there, I said: “You’re going to give you money to some other schmuck. It might as well be me. I’m going to take care of you.”
RICH COHEN: Absolutely. One other little thing that he said — and he acted like it was a statistical reality, I don’t know — that like 98% of deals close within 30 minutes of the deadline, or 30 minutes after the deadline — maybe that’s it. And it’s interesting because the like the Iran deal, all that stuff, he’s been very interested in all that stuff. Because that’s kind of what he did and he always saw it as the same. It wasn’t any different than going in and buying a suit, you know. And one of the things he criticized Jimmy Carter for with the hostages is Jimmy Carter right away said: “I’m not leaving the White House until the hostages are released. We’re going to do whatever we can to get the hostages released.” And he said: “What happened is the whole country became hostages.” And what happens when you say: “I’m not leaving this store without a suit, no matter what happens,” what just happened to the price?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It went up.
RICH COHEN: And your father knew that instinctively. They have to believe you’re going to walk out the door, then the price comes down. And Carter said: “I’m never walking out the door.” So, in a way, it seemed like a humanitarian thing, you don’t want to say, but you don’t do the hostages any favor by doing that. They remain stuck in there an extra six months.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. And also, with President Trump, with the Iran deal, he said: “They’re raking us over the coals. We’re giving everything and they’re taking nothing. You know what? No deal.” And that was right. Just walk away from the deal.
RICH COHEN: And the other thing my father would said is: “You have to get a concession when you give a concession,” not because you even need the concession, but because if it’s in a hostile negotiation, it’ll just be read as weakness. And it’ll make it harder to get a deal — not easier.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, that is absolutely great. All right, Rich, I could speak to you for the next couple of hours, man. It’s funny, I grew up in Brooklyn, so to me, a lot of this is like … And also, for a couple of years — which I hated — I was in the garment business. So, with the garment business, there’s never a price. You just start with a number. And I used to go selling to local businessmen. It was: “All right, how much for a dozen?” “$72.” “All right, if I buy 1,000 dozen?” And I thought: “Wow, woah, $50.” “All right, try one dozen, see if it works.” That happened all the time. I used to just get raked over the coals, but I learned, you know. You learn that the number is just the starting point. It’s not the end. And you never pay the full price. I don’t do it on everything now, because I’m just like, screw it. It’s not worth it to me.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But see, that’s the problem. And your father got this right. And I remember I heard on a podcast, or maybe in the book, where your father let his emotions get the better of him when he was being sued in a lawsuit, that he didn’t develop the win-win. And he was right, but it wasted so much time and money from him. You want to just share that with us before we go?
RICH COHEN: Yeah, well, he got sued. The book was so successful that it was a thing that happens, where people come out of the woodwork and they sue you and they’re like frivolous lawsuits. And he was told by his publisher just to settle it for a few thousand dollars. And instead, he refused to settle it because he said: “If I settle it, it’s like admitting or saying that I got this idea from somebody else.” And a lot of this stuff he was being sued about was like stories about me. I knew it wasn’t right, because I lived through it. But he became fixated, he couldn’t settle this thing.
RICH COHEN: And he ended up spending … He countersued, because he said: “If they say I took it from them, it means they took it from me.” And an amazing turnabout happened in this case where he said he’d been talking about this stuff since he’d worked at Sears and Allstate and — which was 20 years before any of these people wrote a book. And they went back and they found a guy from Sears who worked with my father at that time thinking: “This guy is going to not remember any of this stuff.” And they went to the guy and they interviewed him, and he goes: “Oh, yeah, I remember. And in fact, he put out workbooks for us, teaching us to negotiate. And I still have one of those workbooks.”
RICH COHEN: And in the workbook was all the stories already written because he was years after years putting this stuff together. And the other lawyer is like: “Why would you keep this?” And he’s like: “Because this stuff really works.” And then, at that point, they immediately moved to settle, and my father actually money. They had to pay him. And he got some amount of money. But the point is, even so, he lost four years of his life fighting this thing that he can never get back.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, but it’s something that these guys from the old neighborhood — it wasn’t really money. It was, you never let a bully win. You never give a bully an inch.
RICH COHEN: Yeah, that was his thing. You never let a bully win. If you let one bully pick on you, then the other bullies come out of the woodwork. You’ve got to show you’re willing to … His things were: I want these people to think if you mess with this guy, he’s so fricking crazy, that no one’s going to start up with him ever again.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know, my father passed away a few years ago. In fact, three years ago now. And I can’t remember a time in my life where he was ever scared. If he believed his principles were right and he believed he was on the side of being right, he would stand up against anybody — didn’t matter who it was. And it was such a conviction. It wasn’t the money. It wasn’t the fame. It wasn’t the glory. It wasn’t the respect. It was if you’re a bully, you cannot step over me. Because if I give an inch, you’re going to roll over everyone else. And he used to stand down bullies.
RICH COHEN: Well, my father used to say this thing when he would get incensed about something and start fighting something that I thought was insignificant. And I would say: “Why are you doing this?” And he would always say: “Because it’s 1944 and these bastards are killing Jews.” That’s what he said every time. You’ve got to always stand up and fight.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. Wow. It really is something. Well, the name of the book, folks, is The Adventures of Herbie Cohen: World’s Greatest Negotiator by — none other than a great student, and also his son — Rich Cohen. Rich is a prolific author, guys. I really suggest you look at his other stuff. I read a few of his other books, really well-written and they just fly by — especially Tough Jews was an outstanding, outstanding book. Really enjoyed that. Rich, thanks so much. I really enjoyed our conversation.
RICH COHEN: Yeah, great talking. Appreciate it. Fun.
In July 2011, an oil tanker traveling through the Gulf of Aden was attacked by pirates. The tanker’s length was about the height of the Chrysler Building. It was carrying $100 million worth of fuel. And then, it all went to pieces. An explosion and fire broke out....
If you don’t know what the Civil War was about or about America’s founding, you are lost in this universe. Today’s education is a lot of knowledge, but NO wisdom. That’s what I talked to John Agresto about. His new book is The Death of Learning: How American Education...
For 100 years, a metal hook held up wires and insulators along the Feather River Canyon, California. After a century's worth of wind, rain and snow wearing it down, it eventually broke in half. When the live wire fell, it ignited the dry brush below setting off a huge...