Politics 19/09/2021

Seven principles on the art of successful negotiations

Parties need to be flexible and not cling to rigid positions

Zachary Taylor and Gaspar Bergman
3 min
Imatge of the Spanish president, Pedro Sánchez, and the president, Pere Aragonès, when they inaugurated the meeting of the table of dialogue Wednesday to the Palau de la Generalitat.

Whether it is families debating where to go on holiday, or presidents discussing a peace deal, negotiation is a critical and frequently misunderstood part of our lives, and the natural biproduct of conflict. Managing – rather than eradicating – that conflict can define the difference between war and peace, prosperity and stagnation. Most of us are risk and negotiation adverse. This aversion is strangely pronounced when it comes to gaining something.  Greece and Northern Macedonia took 25 years to reach agreement on the country’s name for that reason. Essentially, we aren’t ready to invest as much political will into gaining something positive, as we are to avoiding something negative (loss of territory, pride, resources). As negotiators across Spain approach a period of crucial talks over their future legal arrangements, it is worth looking at some principles of good negotiation and how we might avoid the mistakes of the past.  

The recipe for negotiators

First. Be hard on the subject but soft on the person. One of the first things a negotiator learns is to separate the problem from the person. Conflict is deeply rooted in psychology; therefore, it’s easy to conflate ego/attitude with problem/position. A strong negotiator will be able to resist the temptation to ‘get personal’.

Second. See potential partners - not adversaries - across the table. When passions are high, it is tempting to channel that energy into portraying your opposite numbers as ‘adversaries’ rather than partners. The best negotiators can put themselves in their opposite numbers’ shoes, understand their constraints and work toward finding a compromise that allows both sides to walk away with their heads held high. 

Third. Stick to values and public interests rather than personal or political positions. A common characteristic of parties at conflict is to stick to rigid, unrealistic positions which effectively shut the door to meaningful dialogue. Negotiators get their instructions from governments, but true leaders recognize the long-term interests of ordinary people – even if that means losing the next election.  

Fourth. Perceived insults can be our undoing. People want to be treated in the same way they treat others, but people are complex and even small differences in perceptions can be easily misunderstood. For that reason, it is vital for good negotiators to apply their emotional intelligence – to listen, to apply strategic patience, and to read body language.

Fifth. ‘When the elephants fight it is the grass that suffers’. In an age of political populism, it requires a lot more courage to stay at the negotiating table when things are difficult then to walk away for the short-term satisfaction of placating the base. As this African proverb explains, Mandela understood that the downtrodden South African people needed their grass.   

Sixth. Keep the discussions small, and the conversation private. Thanks to e-everything and the ubiquity of social media, the idea of a quiet, offline dialogue has become an antiquated idea. But a transparent format is not conducive to important negotiation. An equilibrium is needed between ‘quiet’ and ‘public’ diplomacy. 

Seventh. ‘Winner takes all’ deals don’t last. A ‘make them pay’ approach to conflict management will likely only defer the underlying causes of a conflict until a later date, as we saw with WW1 becoming WW2.  The most enduring negotiated settlements (the Good Friday agreement, Cyprus’ accession into the EU) have not ended the conflict but both Cyprus and the island of Ireland are significantly more peaceful and prosperous than they were 20 years ago. 

Compromise, flexibility, and courage are not easy characteristics to display at a time of heightened tension, but these ingredients – and a focus on the issues rather than the personalities – can help us avoid the mistakes of the past.