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Negotiators Must Understand Perspectives

July 25, 2010

I spent last week in Turkey – mostly on the beach – and somehow resisted writing any blogs. But I did have some interesting conversations with a few of the friendly and hospitable Turks that I met.

For several years now, the question of Turkish membership of the European Union has made periodic headlines in the media. The United States is a powerful advocate; France is a powerful adversary; most other EU member states appear to have a majority of their population who oppose Turkish entry, though with varying degrees of hostility.

Those in favor suggest that the admission of Turkey to the European club would set a powerful example of Muslim / Christian cooperation and continue the process whereby the EU eliminates traditional hostilities and brings new levels of security. Those against (at least within Europe) fear that the extent of the cultural difference, coupled with the potential flood of low cost workers, would create possibly unmanageable tensions and destroy domestic jobs. These issues provide easy fodder for politicians to build popular fears.

Given the disparity in economic wealth between the EU and Turkey, one might therefore assume the Turks themselves would welcome the idea of EU membership. But far from it. In my conversations, it became clear that many Turks view membership as part of an EU plot to find low-cost workers who will prop up the living standards of an ageing EU population. They pointed out that the Turkist population at more than 70 million is the second largest in Europe. It is also on average much younger than other EU populations and therefore does not have the drain of a high proportion of pensioners and other welfare dependents. So in their minds, the EU politicians simpky want to exploit young Turkish workers.

And so ironically, ‘jobs’ turn out to the a common issue for both sides in this debate. Yet the perspectives are polar opposites, with each side believing that it is the one which will be exploited. And in the background is the intermediary (in this case the United States), whose motives are not trusted by either side because they see them as purely self-serving.

Overall, these conversations left me wondering how many negotiations are bedevilled by similar issues of suspicion and distrust. By failing to engage in open and honest debate, the parties retain assumptions and prejudices that prevent successful outcomes. When it comes to contract negotiators, I sense this happening far too often – and of course, our electronic age has made the situation even worse, because often the negotiators do not even meet each other. The problem can be overcome – but only if we are open to asking questions and making sure we focus less on what the other side is saying, and more on discovering why they are saying it.

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