Politics 19/09/2021

The keys to avoiding a failed negotiation

Political conflict resolution experts paint a sketch of what government-to-government dialogue should look like

4 min
Family photo of the dialogue table meeting Wednesday at the Generalitat.

BarcelonaThere is still a long way to go before the dialogue table - reactivated this week - actually negotiates. The opposite, say experts in political conflict negotiations, would be a mistake. First there has to be dialogue, and a lot of it. Even going into personal territory. "To talk about everything without compromises in informal contacts" is the recipe by Francisco Diez, one of the first mediators in Argentina. He has been working on political and social conflicts for more than 25 years, and has done so from the Carter Center - an organisation created by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter -, the United Nations Development Programme, the University of Notre Dame and, currently, from the UN. Now, he says, the Generalitat and Moncloa are in the "pre-negotiation" phase, which is "as, or more important" than the future negotiation. There have already been some steps, such as recognising the conflict and the predisposition to sit down. Before starting to talk, however, some preconditions are needed.

The most important ones? "That the delegations are convinced of what they are doing, that they are willing to do it", explains Vicenç Fisas, an analyst of conflicts, peace processes and negotiations. That's why it's important to make sure that there are no "troublemakers". That is, people who break the negotiation from within. Before the two delegations meet, experts point out that it is necessary for the parties to come clean with themselves. That is, clarify positions and find a joint position. A pending duty right now for the Catalan independentist movement.

Another fundamental condition must also be met: the parties need each other, explains Andrea Finkelstein, a specialist in negotiation, mediation and conflict resolution. And yet another factor is still missing. Javier Wilhelm, director of the master's degree in professional mediation at the UPF Barcelona School of Management, assures that a key preliminary step is to establish differences: "If not, there would be no need to negotiate". The first thing to do once seated is to agree on "the rules of the game". Methodology, periodicity, confidentiality... Precisely what was agreed on Wednesday.

Now it would be up to the delegations to talk. "Sooner rather than later they will have to close themselves up for two or three days, in a place where they will not be disturbed. They have to sleep and eat together," says Fisas. At the beginning, Diez explains, it is good for meetings to be long and, if possible, informal. The tone should be friendly and calm, and humour is recommended. All of this is positive for establishing trust and putting oneself in the other person's shoes. Understand why you are defending that position. This, Wilhelm explains, is good for deciphering each other's mood and arguments already in the negotiation period. And, of course, to arrive with confidence.

And what do negotiators have to be like? They have to have special qualities: good reasoning, political guts, the ability to listen and being friendly are characteristics that experts repeat. This period is the period of dialogue, and it also aims to move away from the conflict and look at it with perspective. In Diez's opinion, this should provoke you to think about things you had not thought about before. To see the conflict in a different way. The complication, he points out, will come when you have to justify yourself to your own people, who will not have been there and will not have made the change of mentality.


"Negotiation is never imposed, otherwise it would be confrontational", says Fisas. When you start negotiating, the big question is where to start. The first step is to create an agenda. Most experts are in favour of climbing the ladder little by little. "Start with the least contentious issues and generate small agreements". Thus, they recommend that the Generalitat carry more points than self-determination and amnesty. "Starting with the solutions hinders the negotiation", adds Finkelstein. At this point, the meetings should be neither so long nor so informal. When delegations run aground, cut them short, mature, and come back another day. And it is at this point that you see the qualities of the negotiators and all that they have learned from the other side. "A negotiating table is like a chessboard. If you know how to play, things happen", says Wilhelm. And this, in Fisas' view, is where semiotics comes into play. In other words, the way words are used: "Sánchez does not accept a referendum, but he has never said anything about a consultation".

The experts recommend several aspects at the level of methodology: there should be a single joint communiqué - Wednesday the Generalitat and the Moncloa made one each -, there can be no leaks, neutral places must be found and a person in charge of the delegation must be appointed at the proposal of the president. And they also give some advice: accept that everyone has to win a little - and, therefore, also give in -, do not leave any issue off the table - neither the airport nor the competences if they help to reach small agreements that help to build trust - and, also, include negotiation professionals. In other words, a mediator - a figure so far rejected by Moncloa.

This figure means many things, and there are many types. They explain that there is the facilitator, who helps to build trust. For example, Diez acted as a facilitator between Ecuador's President Rafael Correa and Colombia's President Álvaro Uribe after the former broke diplomatic relations with the latter in 2008. Diez explains that he went from one government to the other trying to reach an agreement and rebuild trust, and that he failed twice. Finally, in the third mediation, Jimmy Carter was involved and things got back on track. In any case, there are also technicians on each side to help in the negotiation, observers who make summaries and communicate them to the parties, or simple testimonies. Be that as it may, experts recommend that there be technicians. "I want to believe that there is another room next door where they are really negotiating with a more technical character", Wilhelm says of the dialogue table.

The agreements

There are also various types of understanding: small agreements are implemented as the negotiation continues, or nothing is agreed until everything is agreed on. One of the big questions - and one that has also monopolised the debate - is to limit the number of delegations. Wilhelm believes that the more colours represented, the better, and that it would be "desirable" for the PP, for example, to sit on the committee. Finkelstein points out that the more inclusive the delegation, the stronger the agreement will be, although he warns that broadening the parties could "run the talks aground". It should also be borne in mind that not all agreements depend on governments: constitutional reform would need the PP. Nor can electoral cycles be forgotten. "Next year agreements can be reached, but not the following year because of the political cost of the elections", says Fisas. So everything has to go slowly but surely. And one thing must be clear: whoever leaves the table has lost.