This is a version of a talk I gave at #NoDust on #Brexit on 27th January 2017.
The first deal I ever negotiated was a disaster. A team of us were based in a grand hotel outside Coventry and our job was to agree a multi-million pound transaction with an engineering conglomerate. We failed and I reflected long and hard on my role in that failure.
In the years that have followed I am fortunate to have learnt many things about negotiation. There are two things, in particular, that I would like to share. I pull these out now because they show, both what negotiation is and what it isn’t.
My first mistake was to believe that we were right. We had positions that we held and as a tightly knit, loyal team we believed in them passionately. As a result we couldn’t see beyond the end of our hotel dining table bravado.
As the lead lawyer on the team I was highly complicit in this as I helped develop our arguments and push them out to others as a position to be held at all costs.
In hindsight I realise that we fell into a trap. To us, the picture we painted our own drawing room was lovely. We believed it but we believed it because it existed only in our world. In our world we were right. This is a deceit that I now call “the error of right”.
Over time I have learnt that the only thing that is ever definitively right is the answer to a man-made construct, like a number sum. The right answer to two plus two is four because the construct requires it to be so.
In all other matters in the immensity of the world there is no definitive right answer. There is judgement and opinion and there is theory and there is guesswork. Scientists perhaps know and respect this best. As an organisation with an opinion, all we had was our own delicately balanced position.
Negotiation is different. It is a process where the error of right gets acknowledged by both parties. We may hold positions for effect but if we openly show that we believe that we are right what we end up conveying is a belief that the other person is wrong. Making someone else wrong is the inevitable consequence of the error of right and has the effect of locking up and closing down all negotiation.
Instead what we have to do is to spend our time finding out why the other party holds the positions that they do and why they, just like us, might make the same error of right.
If we think of this like a tennis court what we see is that the successful negotiator spends a great deal of time not on our side of the net but on the other. What we need to do is to understand the other party’s thinking from their perspective, not ours.
With that information we can start to negotiate rather than getting drawn in to a game of lobbing missiles ever faster, backwards and forwards at each other, over the net. Getting inside the mind of the other is the key.
My second big mistake was to prize logic over the relationship. As a lawyer with an eye for detail this was an easy trap to fall into.
I thought what mattered was the quality of our arguments, which of course was an assessment we were making for ourselves anyway. In reality, without trust and understanding in the base relationship we were on a hiding to nothing. My logic was never as persuasive as I thought it would be.
One of the reasons why relationship is so important is that negotiation works when we get beyond zero-sum game. Zero-sum is the idea of your gain minus my loss equalling zero so that every bit you take has to come at direct cost to me, like two small boys arguing over a football.
What negotiators aim to do is to get beyond this, by creating possibilities that neither of us previously thought of, before we started talking. These ideas come out of understanding what each of us really needs out of the deal.
This is an art that works particularly well in the world of concepts, methods and ideas as opposed to the world of physical objects. The football is more limited in how it might be divided in time and space but the complexity of a trading relationship has, once you get into it, all sorts of possibilities.
The point about the relationship is that one needs a trusted open relationship in order for the needs of the parties to be openly and honestly shared. Unlike a poker game, sharing here helps to create options that allow us to see fresh ways to meet each person’s needs. It is in this behaviour that the sought after “win-win” lies.
So how does “War without Guns” work? Well, both these traps can be seen and assessed in any situation which calls itself a negotiation. By looking at the people’s behaviour we can tell whether they really are negotiating or not.
Strong belief in the rightness of our own position and the disregard for another’s shows us that there is no real intent to negotiate.
Similarly, a lack of care to nurture the relationship itself and a preference for the company of existing tribally compatible friends also indicates a flaw.
If we do not go out of our way to understand what is different from us we are not actually negotiating, whatever we might believe.
In the U.K. the way the narrow referendum result has been converted like the spoils of war into a insecure but nevertheless strongly held “Victory” with disdain for the slim minority to be cast righteously and bilaterally as “The Will of the People” should itself tell us something here.
Both these things are easy traps to fall into but neither stop us from being principled with friends. Indeed this nuance is critical. Firstly, principles are different from the positions of “rightness” that we might take. We might tell our negotiating partner that we hold something dear as an underlying principle. This is not us saying we are right about the position we take on how to achieve it but merely that we find it important to achieve something that satisfies our underlying need.
Being clear on this principle and how it differs from how we might solve it, helps. Similarly it is ok to speak strong words to a friend from time to time. In relationship it is possible, and indeed a strength, of the right sort, to speak one’s mind to a friend when it is needed. Such is the complexity of diplomacy and negotiation.
The issue here then is that much of what is said to be negotiation is not negotiation at all. The danger is that if we allow ourselves to be subsumed into the error of right and we fail to attend to the relationship we end up dangerously close to the position I fell into. That position is war. It may not have the tools of war but the behaviour is already there.
Our major post Second World War success has been to learn to negotiate everything. Sometimes this can be hard. I love Europe because of it’s capacity to embrace this approach in its fragile union even if I am sometimes annoyed by the time and effort it takes. In that time and effort lies a concern for others as well as self.
In parts of the politically united countries of the U.K. and U.S. this ability to negotiate does not seem to hold much sway. It is perhaps in the countries that were the “victors” in the last major war that the rewards of a negotiated approach have still to be explored the most.
This war like approach is tied up economically with our continued exporting of the tools of war to the rest of the world and sunk in behaviourally as shown by the dominance of the war metaphor of fighting and battling in our everyday language and beliefs. If you doubt this, just observe the language.
Negotiation is a prized ability. If we increasingly rely on force to resolve our differences other than negotiation we are taking a behavioural and linguistic step towards a way of resolving matters that has co-ercion at its core. In that traditional dominant power will come to the fore and all of us will take a step back in evolutionary terms once again.
Beware of War without Guns.
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