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When you don’t know what you want, how can you negotiate to get It?

September 3, 2017

The Brexit negotiations are in many ways a classic. Neither side has a unified vision of how they want the future to be, so their negotiation is reduced to haggling over short-term details such as the division of assets. In that sense, it unfortunately resembles a messy and emotional divorce, rather than an example of visionary statecraft.

What can we learn from this on-going negotiation and how might it be done differently?

What are we really trying to achieve?

Successful projects and international treaties are typically marked by a shared level of clarity over objectives and those objectives are in general positive and measurable. Sometimes it takes time to establish a joint vision and requires levels of rehearsal or scenario planning – but one sure route to failure is an unwillingness to even discuss what that shared vision could be.

It is also essential to recognise that any complex situation is surrounded by uncertainties. This means that smart negotiators don’t try to tie down every detail, but rather establish adaptive approaches, similar to those in agile contracts. In other words, settle on the things you know and set milestones and governance procedures to subsequently review what isn’t currently clear or can’t be foreseen.

Focus on the future

Another area that is important to a positive result is to assume a future where the parties still work together to shared advantage – for example, through joint efforts to innovate or pursue areas of common interest. A focus on these positive aspects can reduce tensions over immediate issues of trust and good faith. They also reflect reality – parties do need to find a way to co-exist and finding a way where both benefit is much smarter than trying to win a Pyrrich victory.

Learn from the past

Successful negotiators learn from the past. No matter what is being addressed, there are valid examples to draw from. To again take Brexit as the context, settlements that seek to impose one-sided reparations have a singular lack of historical success and their repercussions often last for generations.

The goal of a good negotiation is to generate benefit for both sides. That is why contracts that impose rigid templates or negotiations that follow a rigid formula (seeking one-sided advantage) consistently fail to deliver optimum results.

Just wishful thinking?

An unfortunate reality in the Brexit situation is that the European Union has no real vision of its future. That was a significant contributor to the UK’s vote to leave, it is why the EU is terrified others may follow suit and it is a major inhibitor in reaching resolution.

But I still feel sure that there are many future goals and objectives that Europe and the UK have in common and which would enable a shared focus. Indeed, by capturing those ideas and concepts, the relevant governments might even inspire a new sense of excitement and aspiration among their currently disillusioned citizens. So my start point as a negotiator would focus on the future, on shared aspirations and investments, because I believe it is the only way that a sustainable and beneficial agreement will be reached.

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