A Negotiator’s View of Brexit

May 3, 2017

Brexit Negotiations and the Theatre of Managing Expectations

I used to do a lot of negotiating.

I spent years in industrial relations management back in the 1970’s, when it was a particularly live affair, industrial disputes were commonplace and wildcat strikes were so frequent that they were known as ‘the British disease.’ Forty years on and I expect the European Union, or at least those charged with its management, are now describing Brexit as ‘the British disease.’ They’ve certainly made it clear that they don’t want it to spread or to see more exit doors opening.

This is not a piece about the rights or wrongs, or the wisdom or otherwise, of the Brexit decision or its unfolding aftermath. We are where we are, which is now with Britain and the EU in negotiation. So this is a piece about the conduct of negotiations, offered by someone who used to be a negotiator and whose professional work has always been focused on the business of how to make talks more productive than they might otherwise be.

I’ve never conducted negotiations of the scale, complexity and consequence of Brexit. (Who has?) But my comments are not about the content of these negotiations. (So, Mrs May and Mr Juncker, please ignore anyone who suggests that what I’m saying is simply irrelevant in your case.) My observations are to do with some of the behaviours that typically accompany the business of talking whenever people find themselves in that particular form of human interaction that we call negotiating. I also have a recommendation for you, but we’ll come to that.

Last night’s television and radio, and this morning’s newspapers alike, headlined dire predictions about the Brexit negotiations. ‘Juncker: Brexit talks are likely to collapse,’ announced the Times, picking up a story from the German press following an allegedly leaked account of the Prime Minister’s discussions with the President of the European Commission last week. Now Mr Juncker is reported as saying that he is ‘ten times more sceptical’ about the outcome of talks and the news media, amplifying as is their wont towards hyperbole, are ‘reporting’ that talks ‘deteriorated into a full-on confrontation.’ Meanwhile an apparently unperturbed British Prime Minister is calmly dismissing suggestions that the talks were unproductive as merely ‘Brussels gossip,’ while simultaneously acknowledging that the negotiations are going to be hard.

So what’s going on?

We’re in the theatre of managing expectations, a performance which accompanies most negotiations, especially when these are attended by audiences. It’s a significant element in the proceedings, but it is not ultimately the substance of what is being discussed.

I had a wry smile as I heard phrases like ‘fractious exchanges,’ ‘megaphone diplomacy’ and ‘living in another galaxy.’ I was promptly transported back, not to another galaxy, but to earlier experiences of similar rhetoric.

When I was an industrial relations manager in the engineering industry, I used to conduct annual wage negotiations with the trade unions in my factory. The pattern that I inherited, when I came into the role, required that the unions present a wage claim to which management responded with an offer, and then the squabbling and the industrial arm-wrestling began. I’d already observed the ritualistic nature of the process when I’d been the understudy, in a role that entailed little more than keeping the minutes of the meetings. Management would automatically describe the unions’ claims as ‘unrealistic’ and ‘unaffordable.’ The unions would call the company’s offer ‘derisory,’ ‘an insult’ and most certainly ‘unacceptable.’

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that this performance is either good or even necessary. But I am saying that it is not unusual, and probably normal. It’s part of the posturing that prefigures any contest between parties each charged with putting self-interest first and on securing the best possible outcome for itself.

Part of securing that best possible outcome is to soften the other party up, to weaken its resolve, to seed doubt in its mind about how much can be achieved – and at what price – by sheer force or by simply sticking to its original demands.

Posturing in negotiations is normal because the negotiators are taking up initial positions and it’s in their interest for the other party to believe that these positions are, if not utterly fixed, then only moveable at great price. You can see the same logic being pursued in all competitive fields, sports, commerce and international relations alike.

Partly the posturing is aimed at the negotiator on the other side of the table. But partly it is also aimed at the constituents behind the negotiator. Negotiators seldom if ever operate in isolation. They are answerable to others, to those who have given them their mandate, to those whose co-operation is required to make any agreement work. And constituents want their negotiators to be tough, but they also want them to come away with a deal rather than with nothing at the end of the day.

When I was a negotiator in industrial relations, I spent at least as much time negotiating with my management colleagues outside the  negotiating room as I did negotiating with the shop stewards inside it. Your management colleagues can be very dogmatic, outspoken and determined not to budge when discussions are still at the ‘war-of-words’ stage, but suddenly altogether more pragmatic when the potential cost of pushing those words into practice finally becomes apparent. The same is true for shop stewards. I’ve seen them recommend deals and then have those recommendations rejected by mass meetings, sending them back to the negotiating table, But equally I’ve seen plenty of proposals once described as ‘not good enough’ suddenly become acceptable, when it became clear that nothing more would be forthcoming.

Incidentally, it used to be an amusing  part of the rhetoric of negotiations in industrial that rejections were always reported as ‘unanimous’, while any acceptance was invariably ‘narrow.’

Posturing and rhetoric are tricks of the negotiator’s trade, ways of shaping and managing expectations. But posturing is a tight-rope for the negotiator, and tight-rope walkers will tell you that the rope needs considerable slack in it, if you’re to be able to stay on it all the way across the divide that you’re trying to cross. They’ll also tell you that the hardest part of the process is at the end when you’re most committed and the rope is at its most taut and least flexible.

So I wouldn’t get too worried about the initial rhetoric surrounding the Brexit negotiations. It’s part of the process of endeavouring to shape people’s expectations, not so much about exactly what they’re going to have to accept, but more generally about how they’re going to have to be ready to be flexible, and ready to compromise, in order for an eventual agreement to be reached.

Of course it’s always possible for negotiations to fail. In industrial relations the negotiating procedures formally recognise an outcome called Failure To Agree. That doesn’t mean that the relationship comes to an end or simply vanishes. But it does oblige each party to think again and to decide what it’s going to do next.

The Brexit negotiations may come to a Failure To Agree. Actually, I’d expect them to arrive at Failure To Agree on lots of points over the course of the process. So there will be lots of occasions where the negotiators need to think again and decide what they’re going to do next. That’s why it’s called negotiating.

My one piece of advice to the negotiators would be this. Leave the rhetoric behind as soon as possible and get down to the real substance of negotiating. When I was a negotiator, I had a principle which was not to wait for claims and demands but to start with offers and proposals, and to make those offers conditional but as reasonable as I could. Surprise the other party with how unexpectedly proactive and reasonable you’re prepared to be, if you’re met with initiative and reasonableness in return. Doing that helps to strip away the rhetoric and the posturing and enables you to get down to meaningful discussions on points of substance.

The real substance of negotiating consists in exploring and understanding each other’s interests, concerns and priorities and in being as flexible as one can be to find ways of meeting as many of each other’s needs as possible. The voices of productive negotiation are an iterative cycle of inquiry, to understand each other’s issues, rational critique for objective evaluation and articulation, to progressively specify the planks needed to build a platform that you can both stand on. The voices of advocacy and challenge – the adoption of certain positions and the rejection of others, talking the value of particular ideas either up or down, expressing either consternation or calm dismissal of the other party’s initial propositions – have a place in the theatre of the early scene-setting, and the drama of significant turning points, but are not the sort of talking that generates either productive negotiations or viable outcomes.

Let’s hope that Mrs May and Mr Juncker and their respective teams are bringing the useful voices to dinner.

For more on how particular voices enable productive conversation, see the post Talking Collaboration: 3 patterns of working together to create productive conversations

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Alan Robertson

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