"Negotiating is both an art and a science"

12.11.2013 | News

By:  Norbert Staub, Thomas Langholz

As a diplomat, Michael Ambühl was responsible for some of Switzerland's most important foreign policies. Now he is professor at ETH Zurich, sharing his expertise.

Michael Ambühl  
Michael Ambühl: from top diplomat to ETH Zurich professor. (Photo: Thomas Langholz / ETH Zurich)

ETH-News: Mr Ambühl, what made you swap the political world for ETH Zurich?
Michael Ambühl: The results of negotiations between states are normally well analysed and documented scientifically, especially from a legal point of view. However, relatively little is known about how these results are produced. After 31 years in the diplomatic service, I felt I wanted to explore my experiences and findings in this area more deeply, and pass my insights on to students.

One of the aims of your professorship is to use "engineering" to improve negotiating techniques. What is meant by that?
As an ETH Zurich graduate and "technical type", when I was in the diplomatic service I was often asked why I was working there. In response, I would ask: "Why not?" Politics, society and business call for a scientific mindset too. Being able to think in terms of models can help resolve complex political issues. "Negotiation engineering" is what I call a method for breaking down complex problems into simpler sub-problems, which can then be brought to a solution using quantitative or mathematical methods.

Does that mean there is a set of building blocks for conducting effective negotiations?
No, because every negotiating situation is unique. Negotiating is both a science, based on theories, concepts and methods, and at the same time an art, as it were, which requires sensitivity to cultural differences, an ability to maintain a dialogue and a little bit of psychological skill.

In your inaugural lecture entitled "Introduction to Negotiation" you draw on examples from your own diplomatic experience?
Yes. Successful negotiating requires not only knowledge of theoretical principles but also knowledge based on experience. I'll give you an example: the EU negotiates differently from the USA. In the European Union, political compromise that takes account of the needs of the member states is quite simply the norm - and this coincides with Switzerland's understanding of how to negotiate. The USA is less used to this compromise-based approach. For example, when it came to the agreement between Switzerland and the USA regarding UBS, it was a question of how many instances of administrative assistance Switzerland could be expected to offer the USA without that information imposing an obligation on our independent judiciary in the event of appeals. In this case, we took inspiration from the Swiss-EEA negotiations in 1992. At that time, to compensate for any parts of the contract that an EEA member state was unable to accept, the concept of "rebalancing measures" was introduced. Thanks to this same "rebalancing" concept, the differences were bridged, enabling our American partners to approve the agreement.

To what extent has your ETH Zurich training been of use to you in your negotiations?
It has benefited me mainly indirectly. But there were situations where applied mathematics was useful, for example during the Land Transport Agreement with the EU, when it came to setting the Heavy Goods Vehicle Tax (LSVA). Or in the taxation agreements with the UK and Austria. Those solutions required mathematical formulae which I was able to help work out, and on the basis of which we were able to reach an agreement.

We all have to negotiate in our everyday lives. Is it possible to compare private negotiations with those on a political level?
There are a few general principles of negotiation science. Negotiations between states are normally more complex. They begin with the negotiating mandate, which has to be defined and approved in a political process. And the process is not over once the negotiations have produced a result: the results then have to be approved by the politicians.

You were very successful as a negotiator. Did you sometimes have to accept failure?
The taxation agreement with Germany that I mentioned earlier was a success on paper, but unfortunately politically and legally it was not - and that's what counts in the end. It did rankle a bit with me afterwards that it could not be implemented because of political opposition in Germany. You ask yourself how you could have done it differently.

You were in the political limelight for a long time. Won't you miss the world of diplomacy?
Certainly, it was exciting to work for the public good on an international level. But here at ETH Zurich it's about working for the good of Switzerland, too. The areas of interest are the same, but my focus has shifted to education and research. Having the opportunity to research this subject in more depth at ETH Zurich and to teach others about it is something I find very stimulating and regard as a privilege. It would also be good if we at ETH Zurich could foster closer links with the Federal Government in this field.

Finally, can you reveal to us what you think are the most important rules for negotiating?
Of course, there is no magic formula, but there are some basic ground rules that apply to any negotiations. Firstly, clarify what you really want to achieve and where the other party's interests lie. Secondly, suggest solutions that can be seen to be fair and reasonable. Thirdly, present your arguments coherently, i.e. with no contradictions, and consistently, which really means firmly. Fourthly, if there are any "red lines", don't disclose them, as that only puts unnecessary restrictions in place. Last but not least, build a sense of trust.


Michael Ambühl studied Operations Research and Management Science at ETH Zurich and in 1980 he wrote a thesis on mathematical optimisation at the university’s Institute for Operations Research. He worked for a total of six years as an Assistant, Senior Assistant and Lecturer in the Economics Faculty of the University of Zurich. In 1982, he joined the diplomatic service and rose through the ranks to become a negotiator for some of Switzerland's most important foreign policy portfolios. His most significant roles included the following: Head of the Integration Office (1999), responsible for the negotiations on the Bilateral Trade Agreements II, and Secretary of State in the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (2005), including leading the Swiss-US negotiations regarding UBS and mediating between Armenia and Turkey. In 2010, he was appointed Secretary of State for International Financial Matters (SIF) and was involved in tax negotiations between Switzerland and the UK and between Switzerland and the USA, as well as the FATCA Agreement. He has held the Chair of Negotiation and Conflict Management at ETH Zurich since September 2013.

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