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Negotiating chaos and lost trust: the price of bluff and bravado
In the recent Brexit negotiations, the UK Prime Minister Theresa May made yet another negotiating error that further weakened the British position in their bid to wiggle our of the European Union. All ready for a triumphant announcement of agreement about Northern Ireland, her parliamentary partners, the ultra-conservative DUP, scuppered her compromise agreement with the EU and Ireland about borders.
How things have changed. Back in May, she was talking tough about 'No deal is better than a bad deal' and her party was scoffing at EU demands for a massive divorce payoff. ?They need us more than we need them' was a common cry. Yet now we are offering tens of billions and conceding at every turn.
So what's up? What should we have done differently?
The first step should have been to understand realities, instead of the 'have your cake and eat it' echo chamber ideals of the hard Brexit advocates. We should have realized their experience of hundreds of years of British conquest and arrogance, and the long desire for revenge. We should also have realized their fear that conceding to UK demands would encourage other doubters. Even then, the temptation to 'divide and conquer' by approaching individual countries (a classic negotiation tactic) was not a good move (ministers tried it) as this just soured the relationship further.
The next step should have been to show respect and empathy towards the Europeans, not disdain. We should have listened and demonstrated concern. We should also have understood the real impact on us and prepared detailed plans for how to handle disagreement. We should have been organized and not shown our internal divisions. The list goes on.
I feel really sorry for Theresa May, trying to stitch together all the different interests and emotions. Even if she cobbles together some deal, she has lost the respect of many, including the electorate. So too has her disorganized party.
Enough. What are the lessons for the rest of us?
First, never get arrogant nor underestimate your negotiating partners (and don't think of them as purely opponents -- it a joint process to find optimum benefit for both). Remember also the partners on your own side of the line. The DUP were not sufficiently engaged and the result was last-minute collapse.
Then get your data and facts straight. During the 2016 referendum, Minister Michael Gove said that we had had enough of experts. On the contrary, listen to your experts carefully.
Listen to your partners, too. Research their situation. Understand their deep interests. Build trust, not anger. With this, help them understand you.
Then talk process. How should you proceed? Agree how to agree. The EU blindsided the UK earlier in the year by demanding agreement on a huge divorce bill before moving to the trade talks that the UK desperately wanted.
And manage time. The UK government have had a year and a half so far and are still disorganized. They set the two-year clock ticking last Spring without a plan nor a clear organization, which they made worse with a disastrous election (again, failing to change minds).
Negotiation is a serious business, especially when there are big stakes and many interests. It takes time and planning. Political bluster is no substitute.
All we can do now is watch and learn from this masterclass in failure. And determine not to fall down such rabbit holes ourselves.