A History Lesson in Physical Surroundings

Jeff Cochran


Being able to identify the tactics used by strategically difficult people is key to being able to overcome them. Consider this lesson about Admiral Hyman Rickover. He employed the Physical Surroundings tactic—when the other side controls a venue to gain an advantage, such as controlling your comfort level, location, resources, and so on—to make others feel off-balance (literally). It was effective because people didn’t identify what he was doing and make changes to alleviate the problem.

The following is an excerpt from the book “Bullies, Tyrants, and Impossible People” by Ron Shapiro, Mark Jankowski, and Jim Dale.

Admiral Hyman Rickover, child of a Jewish immigrant family, entered the Naval Academy in 1918, almost immediately in conflict with its traditional W.A.S.P. aristocracy. According to much of the history written about him, Rickover was unpopular with other midshipmen and was resented as a loner. He graduated from the academy and went on to an early career that was largely undistinguished. He volunteered for submarine duty and served, but he was not selected for command. Shortly after, he was selected, almost randomly, for a limited assignment to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where nuclear research was being performed. He quickly determined that the military use of nuclear power represented a future opportunity for the navy and for Hyman Rickover. From then on, it became his obsession and eventual path to a historic role in U.S. naval history.

However, despite his increasing renown and respect in the field, rising to the rank of admiral, gaining international eminence, Rickover never seemed to lose the insecurity that came with being an outsider in his early years. The father of the “nuclear navy” and developer of the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the admiral became infamous for his subtle but highly effective interpersonal tactics. The classic Rickover maneuver was to position visitors—be they important government officials or departmental subordinates—in purposely unbalanced chairs. He literally kept those he dealt with off-balance when they were in his office. The admiral was employing Tactic 11—Physical Surroundings—to gain or maintain a sense of superiority and, consequently, an upper hand in dealing with others. Most of the people who sat in his office probably could not identify the physical manipulation—the rocky, uneven chair legs, their own literal instability versus Rickover’s solid, steady position—but they would say that they simply felt uncomfortable or at a disadvantage in his presence.

Ron Shapiro in the Middle East with PeacePlayers In’tl

Jeff Cochran


Earlier this month, our Chairman, Ron Shapiro, traveled to Israel and the West Bank through his involvement with PeacePlayers International, a non-profit organization that uses basketball to unite and educate young people in divided communities around the world. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Shapiro and learn about his transformative experience.


Why did you go to Israel and the West Bank with PeacePlayers International?

Nearly ten years ago, a group of young men from what is now called PeacePlayers International visited my office and asked if I would join their Board and help them with fundraising. I initially resisted, but they and their cause were so persuasive that within six weeks I was a member of their Board.

Within a year, I agreed to be the Chair of their Board for one year on an “interim” basis. Somehow that one year became five years. During that period, I saw videos and heard stories of children in areas of conflict like Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Israel who, with the help of PPI, were building bridges and inspiring hope. I felt the power of the work we were doing. Yet despite invitations, I did not make any site visits, because of what I misperceived as an overwhelming professional and personal schedule. Although my involvement continued when I stepped down as Chair and assumed the role of Chairman Emeritus, I still had not interacted with the kids and the people of PeacePlayers working in the field.

Thankfully Brendan Tuohey is a persistent guy. As a result of his persistence, I ultimately agreed to make a site visit in July 2012. I never suspected, at this stage in my life and after three other trips to Israel, to have a transformative life experience while visiting the PeacePlayers team and children in Israel and the West Bank. I am so glad that I chose to share that experience with my granddaughter, Kate, who recently celebrated her bat mitzvah; my daughter, Laura; my son, John (Herb) Beatson; and my business partner, Michael Maas; and that I was able to have the opportunity to travel with Brian Ross, Ann Curry and their children, Walker and Mckenzie; Irina Pavlova; Leslie and Joe Schaller; Brian Kriftcher; Amy Selco; and of course, Anna and her father, Brendan Tuohey.

How did you spend your time?

Aside from spending 24 hours in airplanes (and I might add meeting a new friend, Joey Low, on my journey over, who accepted my invitation to join us on a visit to our program on a kibbutz in Sdot Yam, and after the visit was moved to support PPI going forward), we would rise early and retire late so that we could maximize our exposure to some sites, but more importantly to the people and the program. From the very moment we arrived (when we were graciously hosted by the parents of one of the leaders of the PPI M.E. team, Samer Elayan, for dinner in the Arab village of Bet Safafa), to being given a geopolitical tour of East Jerusalem and part of the West Bank, to visiting the religious sites (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim) in the Old City, to the Foreign Ministry in Ramallah, to the moving stories from PeacePlayers staff members on bus rides as we travelled from PPI programs in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Tel Aviv, and Sdot Yam, and the ancient ruins of Caesarea, our eyes feasted on unbelievable sites and our ears and brains were treated to a cross-current of views and ideas from morning to night. And most of all, our hearts were filled with hope because of the young people we met ranging in ages from five to eighteen and the way they played together as well as their interactions with the PPI staff members throughout our stay.

I might also add that we had the opportunity to visit with Laura’s uncle who is a Judaic scholar, Broadway level musical comedy actor, and peace blogger, and has lived in Jerusalem for the past forty years, and we had breakfast with Laura and Kate’s rabbi who was studying in Jerusalem. Both tried to help us maintain some perspective on the divergent and, at times extreme, views that we encountered during our visit. In an email to Laura addressing some of the harsh realities of Israel, her rabbi exhorted her to recognize that, despite troubling places and things about our own country, such realities do not make us renounce the totality of American society or the veracity of American democracy. He wrote then about Israel: “…I encourage you to be inspired by amazing people who continue to struggle to right the ills of Israel. There is so much here that is beautiful, honorable, profoundly ethical, and wholly inspirational.”

What impacted upon you most?

To use the rabbi’s words, those who were especially “beautiful, honorable, profoundly ethical, and wholly inspirational” were the children and staff of PeacePlayers International. The “twinnings” we saw at the various PPI sites in Israel were simply amazing. The Jewish and Arab children interacted – from practice to games – as if they were lifelong friends and with no gaps in religion, ideology, or politics separating them. They were even tolerant enough to accept people like me participating in their practices despite my total basketball inadequacy and frequent air ball shots. The sheer joy of the littlest PeacePlayers children (ages 6-8) dribbling their own personal basketballs (given to them by PPI) and going up and down the court in their games touched hearts and inspired all of us who came to see them. At the other end of the age spectrum, we spent substantial time with PPI Leadership Development Program (LDP) boys and girls (ages 15-18) who played hard, hugged lovingly, and shared of themselves and their lives openly. To say that those of us on the trip wanted to not only embrace them, but also to take them home with us, would be an understatement. What powerful lessons they taught us not only on the court, but also in their every interaction with each other, with the PeacePlayers staff, and their new American friends. Just as dinner at Samer’s house touched our hearts and opened our trip with feelings of warmth and hope, our closing dinner on the beach at Dag Al Hayam with our fellow PPI travelers, the PPI leadership team, and the wonderful girls of the LDP, reaffirmed for us the mission of PeacePlayers International: to close divides in areas of conflict by building bridges between children from all sides – in this case Jews and Arabs – through the game of basketball.

From time to time, I was consulted on the trip for perspective as a “negotiation expert”. The real experts on bringing people together, however, are in the field every day on behalf of PeacePlayers International. Just as I will never forget the children dribbling their basketballs, sharing their experiences, hugging each other and us, and igniting our hopes, I will not forget the greatest bridge builders of all, the PPI team, including: Karen, Samer, Nissreen, Githa, Sharon, Galit, Edniesha, and “younger, taller” Samer.

Any other thoughts?

Let me share some from our family group:

Laura: “Kate and I are still struggling with explaining to our family the true impact of this incredible trip. It is difficult for Kate to discuss it without getting emotional. The opportunities that we had to not only witness, but to join in and befriend these incredible PeacePlayers children were truly the gift of a lifetime…..”

Michael: “The wonderful smiles of the girls, you, and everyone on the journey have been with me constantly since we left our new family last night. Amazing how small the world is, how much we all have in common, and the goodness of most everyone we come in contact with. I’m sure we will be downloading impressions, lessons learned and relationships developed for quite some time…”

John (Herb): “We learned a lot about the conflict from both the Jewish and Arab perspectives and I left more convinced than when I arrived of the importance of the PeacePlayers International programs. Actions from both sides are making the situation increasingly intractable, increasing the importance of establishing some common ground between the two sides. To the extent the children in our programs can establish this common ground, perhaps a sustainable solution to the conflict will one day be achievable. I would have far less confidence in the probability of such a solution if PPI was not actively bridging divides on the ground…”




Jeff Cochran


There are times in negotiations that you will feel like the weaker party. Maybe you are less experienced, have less leverage, or something else entirely. For whatever reason, you feel like David squaring off against Goliath. So how do you combat this problem? Well David didn’t show up with only one stone and neither should you. You must find alternative and back-up plans in case particular proposals are shot down. Finding creative approaches around the seemingly insoluble dilemmas posed by Goliath can lead to a victory for the little guy. Next time you find yourself in a tough negotiating spot, remember to brainstorm creative solutions using the following four rules.

1) Brainstorm in groups of four or less. You must have two to brainstorm, but there’s a point of diminishing ideas. Groups of more than four tend to stifle ideas. The group becomes an audience instead of participants. Judgment sets in. Status can become involved. All of these inhibit ideas.

2) Don’t criticize ideas. Let them flow. A great idea can be the first words out of someone’s mouth. Or the last. Any idea, good or bad, can be the spark that leads to great ideas. Wait until the brainstorming session is over before doing the sorting and sifting.

3) Keep at it. Creativity is more perspiration than inspiration. Effective negotiators are creative negotiators. But many people are intimidated by the prospect of being creative. They shouldn’t be. Everyone has the capacity to create ideas. If you create 20 ideas for a solution that seemingly only has 2, it will help you choose the best alternatives. Volume begets creativity.

4) Make it fun. Like most preparation, brainstorming is not inherently fun. So, make it fun. Sometimes we brainstorm by splitting into two groups. Each side gets a packet of sticky notes. The idea of the game is to write down ideas, one per note, and connect all the ideas into a chain of notes. Depending on the issue, we take from five to fifteen minutes to generate ideas. People become so involved in coming up with ideas, connecting them, and trying to construct as long a chain as possible, they invariably come up with new solutions, no matter how many times we’ve done a problem before.