Why everyone needs to feel like a winner in the Brexit negotiations

As we approach months of negotiations among the many parties involved in Brexit, and Scotland’s place in Europe and indeed the UK, what techniques might we hope to see applied?

Classic negotiation theory emphasises “positional bargaining”, ie arguing for your own position with a win/lose, or “zero-sum game” approach. In other words, “I am right” and “You are wrong”, resources are finite and we must get as much as we can from others. And, of course, vice versa.

However, sophisticated negotiators take a different tack. They adopt “principled” strategies, based on identifying the common interests and joint needs of those involved. Such an approach is likely to reap more benefits in the long run as players in the negotiations are moved to optimise gains for all concerned. They know that there is a paradox here: by considering the hopes, concerns, fears and aspirations of others, it is more likely that one’s own interests will be satisfied to a greater extent. Think about this in the context of Europe today.

So, how might this work for the First Minister? The critical first step is preparation. This will include identifying as clearly as possible what the Scottish Government is seeking to achieve and why. Articulating priorities and being aware of potentially conflicting targets is likely to be important.  Similarly, it will be helpful to pay close attention to what might be concerning others and what they might need to hear from Scotland by way of reassurance and acknowledgment of their perspective, along with recognition of the impact on them of various courses of action.  Identifying and emphasising common ground, as well as areas of possible misunderstandings and misperceptions, will help to build bridges for the future. The First Minister might ask herself: “What can I say which will be helpful to them?”

By being open to a range of possible options, the Scottish Government will avoid the limitations of binary, black/white thinking which can so impede effective negotiation. In other words, good negotiators don’t shut down potential solutions even if they seem doubtful at the moment. It’s far better to explore the range of outcomes and assess these objectively against the overall priorities you’ve set. Who knows, new possibilities may emerge in the creative process of problem-solving if you are open to them. So, the First Minster might be advised, don’t commit or box yourself in too early. 

As we often see, “bottom” or “red” lines seem fine when you want to appear to be playing hardball but, frequently, they are far less attractive as circumstances outside your control change. Loss of face can then become an issue even for senior negotiators. The very best will avoid that situation in the first place by being canny and provisional in their proposals, leaving room for movement as opportunities emerge. Sometimes, they will experiment with ideas, “straw-men” we might call them, and find ways to dispense with these if they become an obstruction. Indeed, the astute negotiator will not even be associated with these ideas, sending in what are sometimes called “wizards” – knowledgeable but dispensable subordinates - to try them out.

Underneath all of this will be a diplomatic offensive – which we may be seeing already – to build relationships with key people. Even if one does not agree with (or even like) the others involved, one has to get on with them in a negotiating capacity. So, setting aside time to get to know your counterpart negotiators and their styles, preferences and even personal stories is a mark of the thoughtful negotiator.  Watch for more of this in the weeks ahead. 

It will be important too to remember that there are many and varied constituencies behind the scenes. Understanding the cultures and sub-cultures elsewhere will be helpful when the crunch comes, when your job is to help write “victory speeches” which play well outside the negotiating room as well as inside it. It’s all in the messaging after all. For example, most politicians will be aware of what they need to deliver, or at least appear to be delivering, to their electorates. This is where concessions could be important. The really astute principled negotiator will be acutely aware of what plays well in the constituency of their counterpart. Then, they will be prepared to give on some matters in order to gain on others. The principle of reciprocity – you rub my back and I’ll rub yours, in common parlance – could help both achieve what they need. 

None of these approaches guarantees success. But the skilful negotiator will know that using such techniques will maximise the possibility of success while reducing the risk of the whole thing blowing up.  After all, these negotiations will only really work if everyone feels that they are a winner.