(FORTUNE Magazine) – When the U.S. needs to negotiate with hostile governments for the release of political prisoners, the task usually falls to Bill Richardson, a seven-term Democratic Congressman from New Mexico. The former pro-baseball prospect has played hardball with the likes of Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, and General Sani Abacha of Nigeria. In most cases he walked away a winner. Richardson engineered the return of two American defense contractors who wandered across the Iraq-Kuwait border, prevailed upon the North Korean government to release a captured U.S. helicopter pilot and turn over the body of his co-pilot, and persuaded Castro to free three political prisoners. He also held a critical meeting with Raoul Cedras of Haiti to try to smooth Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return to power. Richardson spoke with FORTUNE's Justin Martin about the art of negotiating.

What does it take to be a good negotiator?

You have to be a good listener. You have to respect the other side's point of view. You have to know what makes your adversary tick. Certainly you want to have a goal. You want to come out of a meeting with something, even if it's only a second meeting. And basically you have to use every single negotiating technique you know--bluster, reverence, humor.

How much leverage do you have when you're negotiating to release a hostage?

I can't really offer the other side any concessions. I have to be clear at the outset that we're not going to resolve differences between our countries. Just building in the minds of some of these dictators that they'll have somebody to talk to that they can trust is helpful. I let these governments, especially unfriendly ones, know I can pass messages. They know I'm going to end up talking to the White House. There's now the perception that the United States is the only superpower out there. Any entity associated with the U.S. government automatically has a leg up.

How do you prepare for a negotiation?

I talk to people who know the guy I'll be negotiating with. I talk to scholars, State Department experts, journalists. Before meeting with Saddam Hussein, I relied a lot on Iraq's ambassador to the U.N. He told me to be very honest with Saddam--not to pull any punches. With Castro, I learned that he was always hungry for information about America. Sure enough, he was fascinated by Steve Forbes, fascinated with the congressional budget impasse. He fancies himself an expert on U.S. politics. With Cedras of Haiti, I learned that he played good cop and that a top general, Philippe Biamby, played bad cop. So I was prepared. During our meeting, Biamby leaped up on the table and started screaming, "I don't like the U.S. government to call me a thug...Je ne suis pas un thug." I remember turning to Cedras as Biamby was doing this and saying, "I don't think he likes me very much." Cedras laughed and laughed. He said, "All right, Biamby, sit down."

What else can you do if negotiations get dicey?

Dictators often try to take advantage of you at the outset. They try to catch you off guard. At the beginning of my meeting with Saddam Hussein, I crossed my legs and the soles of my feet were visible. He got up and left the room. I asked the interpreter, "What did I do?" He said, "The President was insulted that you crossed your legs. To an Arab that's a nasty insult, and you should apologize." I asked, "Is he coming back?" The interpreter said, "Yeah, he'll come back." When he did, I made the decision not to apologize. I wasn't going to grovel, say, "Hey, I'm real sorry I crossed my legs." I planted my feet and said, "Mr. President, let me resume." And I think he respected that, because the discussions got better. You try to show that you're a humble person, but at the same time you can't back down. You can't show weakness. You keep coming at them.

What other techniques do you use?

I try to appeal to the leader's advisers, the ones I've talked to in advance, to cut a deal. I did that in Cuba. I said to Castro, "Look, I just talked to your assistant here, and I thought we had an agreement." I turned to Carlos Lage, a vice president, and said, "Come on, help me out, will you?" Finally he did. And so we kept the conversation alive.

A lot of these leaders are isolated. They're told only what they want to hear. So you bring them a dose of reality. If they think you're honest, sometimes they'll respond to that. With Castro, it was nearing midnight, and I said, "I came here to negotiate an agreement. I'm going to have to go back to the United States empty-handed. I'm going to have to say to the press when I leave that I got nothing. Is that the message you want?" I started making inroads after that.

When you finish a negotiation, can you tell right away whether you achieved your objectives?

You always know by the end, when you get either a pleasant or a perfunctory goodbye. With Saddam there was a grudging respect. There was definitely a rapport with Castro over baseball and Latin culture. I spoke with him in Spanish, and he gave me five cigars; he said they were the best--Cohiba.

You wound up smoking a cigar with Castro?

No, he doesn't smoke anymore.

Have you ever walked out of a negotiation?

Yes, in Nigeria four months ago. My objective was to secure the release of Moshood Abiola, who was imprisoned after he won the 1993 election. But General Abacha was taking such a hard line that I didn't even get to visit Abiola. Finally I said, "Mr. President, I'm leaving the country. Let me know if you change your mind." You want to keep the channels open. And I've been contacted since then. They've sent messages, and I've coordinated with the State Department. I think eventually Abiola will be released.

Who are the toughest people you've ever negotiated with?

The North Koreans. They're the most relentless, the most dogmatic. They can't make any decisions on the spot. They always have to check with their superiors, but you don't know who the superiors are. Saddam Hussein is tough too. He starts out with a very menacing image. It sets you back a bit. I remember looking at my hands, and I was sweating. I was conscious that he knew what his reputation was. And he knew that I knew his reputation.