Across the Great Divide

Yet more wall-to-wall Brexit ‘n’ Trump stuff in the meejah this week (and we’ve got years more of it to look forward to) — but surprisingly (you may think) the first of these provides the background to this week’s Business Bit.

You may have noticed that Mrs May signed the letter triggering Article 50 (of the Lisbon Treaty) this week, thus starting a two (+) year period of negotiation.  It’s clear from the cacophony of bilge considered comment in the press that yer average journo has absolutely no idea how a business negotiation is carried out — most of them seem to think that the way forward is to state one’s position (with as much aggression as possible) and then stick to it through thick and thin.  Those of us who have carried out complex negotiations, though, know that it’s not at all like that, and Daniel Finkelstein’s article in Wednesday’s Times offered a masterclass in how to go about it.

Lord F started with recounting a story from 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt was campaigning to return to the White House.  His campaign manager realised that he had had three million (!) copies of a campaign leaflet (incorporating a portrait of the candidate) printed before getting the permission of the photographer, and that under copyright law this might let him in for a bill of $3million (a sizeable sum even now, but a gigantic one in 1912).

What to do?  After careful thought, he sent the photographer a telegram (if you don’t know what one of these is, ask your granny — Ed), saying “planning to distribute three million copies of campaign speech with photographs.  Excellent publicity opportunity for photographers.  How much are you willing to pay to use your photographs?  Respond immediately” — and received a reply by return — “Appreciate opportunity but can only afford $250”.

The article goes on to refer to research work undertaken over the last forty years by the Harvard Negotiation Project, which has spawned a number of books (such as Getting To Yes), all incorporating similar ideas —

  1. establish your own negotiating objectives
  2. be clear about what will happen if it all breaks down (this is called identifying your BATNA — Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement)
  3. understand the objectives of the other party
  4. …..  (fairly obvious so far, but…..)
  5. mentally walk round the table and see things from their point of view
  6. seek to achieve their objectives as well as your own
  7. find ways round a “no” from the other side

Steps 3 through 6 involve what the researchers call “listening from the inside” — not simply hearing what the other side say they want, but truly comprehending their needs.

Step 7 includes showing that you respect their authority, conceding arguments about the past (as opposed to your future position), and reframing your objectives in a way that meets their interests as well as your own.

Lord F gives the example of Senator Joe Biden visiting Moscow (in 1979!) during arms negotiations, seeking concessions from the USSR that President Carter hadn’t managed to secure.  Having received a firm “nyet” from Andrei Gromyko, Senator B had a brainwave — he asked Gromyko whether he could advise him (young and inexperienced) what he should say when he got back to Washington.  Gromyko couldn’t resist giving advice, and in the process talked himself round to a new position.

As one of the project researchers says, “breakthrough negotiation is the art of letting the other person have your way”.  Let’s just hope Mr Davis has read the study…..


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