Reflecting on the Brexit negotiations

“In negotiations of all kinds, the greater your capacity for empathy – the more carefully you try to understand all of the other side’s motivations, interests and constraints – the more options you tend to have for potentially resolving the dispute or deadlock.” These are wise words from negotiation guru, Deepak Malhotra of Harvard Business School. He goes on to conclude that “a lack of empathy usually guarantees failure.”

If these observations were merely academic, we might nod sagely and agree. But they are not. We are hearing more and more these days about a lack of empathy at senior levels. 

Sadly, Malhotra’s words may provide an accurate diagnosis of what has gone wrong with the UK’s Brexit negotiations. 

In his book, Negotiating the Impossible, Malhotra describes three central components of effective negotiation: framing, process and empathy. Another notable writer in this field, Kenneth Cloke, emphasises the criticality of these components, which he describes slightly differently as content, process and relationships. 

Cloke points out that nearly all of our focus in solving political problems is on content while comparatively little time is spent on process and relationships. This can be fatal to solving seemingly intractable issues – like Brexit. Ironically, working hard to build trust and goodwill, being careful with language and showing respect for contrary viewpoints, enhances rather than diminishes the prospects of success. Obvious perhaps. But this doesn’t appear to be the experience in Brexit negotiations and we are suffering the consequences.

As Cloke says: “when we act unilaterally, in our own exclusive self-interest, in matters that directly and significantly impact others, they feel disrespected and more inclined to resist.” He suggests that if we added up the costs we incur as a consequence, the results would be staggering and would vastly outweigh the cost of learning how to talk and act together. Think of the costs already incurred in the UK economy because of the uncertainty arising from our negotiating strategy. £600 million per week according to a recent report. Staggering?  

Where does this lead us? Any inquiry into Brexit must explore these issues of process and empathy. Neuroscience now reveals so much about how we act and react in difficult situations. We need to apply this in the political world. Adversarial, binary approaches which stimulate the fight or flight response (and yes/no; in/out; right/wrong; right/left) may no longer be fit for purpose. We must find ways to deal with complexity, volatility, uncertainty, and ambiguity. We need political leaders who understand and can work with these ideas. 

This leads to the question of political leadership. One or more of the main political leaders may have years of difficult negotiations about our future relationship with Europe. Who, of the current batch, has the intellectual and emotional range to handle these in a way which will ensure constructive political, economic and social relationships?