Paul Fisher on the challenges of negotiating in an age of transparency
Like ‘authenticity’, ‘transparency’ is one of those concepts that is assumed always to be good. To be inauthentic or opaque is to be untrustworthy. We crave clarity, directness, people who say what they mean and mean what they say.
But there are some circumstances in which transparency needs to be tempered. One of them is when you are in the middle of a negotiation. More than anything, a successful negotiation requires you to be able to spend most of your time listening and understanding the other party’s needs, or pausing to consider possibilities -- without having to provide a running commentary to outsiders or muddying the waters with other people’s opinions and interpretations. The problem is that in the age of social media, it is increasingly difficult to keep other people, and especially the media, quiet.
Traditionally, diplomatic and trade negotiations were always conducted in private, even secretly. During a negotiation you need to be able to ‘float’ a potential concession to see if it might be acceptable to the other party. The idea generally is to offer something that might be of relatively low cost for you to give away but of high value to your counterpart to acquire; in turn, your counterpart might offer something of low cost to them but enormously valuable to you. This ‘give and take’ and creative and flexible approach to negotiation can form the central basis for an agreement of genuine value to both sides.
However, it is not advisable to be too explicit about just how much you value (or don’t value) the offers under discussion. You want to create what feels like a ‘win’ for both sides, not leave your opposing number with the impression that you’re congratulating yourself after walking away with a cow for a handful of beans – or vice versa.
Similarly, you want to keep your ‘red lines’ pretty close to your chest. This is partly because any minimum quickly becomes a target: if you ‘won’t accept anything less than £10’, say, it is hard to argue why anyone should pay you anything more. In addition, the give and take of negotiation depends on flexibility: if you tie yourself to a fixed position you will soon find that the situation deteriorates to the point where you are effectively shouting at each other from opposite ends of the room, incapable of meeting at any point in the middle.
Both of these things are relatively easy to achieve if you are an individual with a fair amount of self-control and negotiating on your own behalf. It becomes more difficult if you are negotiating as part of an organisation of any type, and particularly if there is any kind of media or public interest in the talks.
Other members of your organisation will demand transparency from you regarding what you will be saying and offering on their behalf. This, of course, may be fair enough (depending on the subject) but it does mean that you have to conduct and manage pre-negotiations with your own side. If your discussions are ‘leaked’ to journalists or on social media they may undermine your position when you start the negotiations proper. A good example of this has to be the UK Conservative Party during the Brexit negotiations. While Prime Minister Theresa May’s talk of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ might be interpreted as an attempt to conceal her hand, her Cabinet colleagues’ bellicose language, threats of non-payment of debts, and comments about ‘having’ and ‘eating’ cake only served to damage the UK Government’s credibility and harden positions. The popular press’s interpretation of every putative compromise as a sign of weakness can hardly have helped.
Once you have your own side on-side you are in a position to go to the table, metaphorically speaking. I would advise all parties involved in the negotiation to set the ‘rules’ from the start, and agree them together. These should include the principles that any statements to the media are agreed and issued jointly, and that no one involved in the negotiation will talk about it or post anything on social media unless agreed by all sides.
Does this mean that you can hold the negotiations in complete secrecy? Probably not. Someone is bound to notice particular groups of people in the same building; industry gossip is quick to put two and two together; and even the ‘quality’ newspapers will run speculative articles. But you can simply refuse to add fuel to the fire. Keep Twitter silence, hold your nerve, and agree with all parties’ press offices a standard statement.
Having said that, I do recommend that communications directors are kept informed every step of the way. Preferably they should be in the room during the negotiations: they need to understand the nuances of what has been agreed so that they can be sensitive and informed when communicating.
Finally, and this has clearly been hard for everyone involved in the Brexit negotiations, don’t react too easily. Pretend you haven’t heard insults and ignore ultimatums. Don’t let barbs get to you. In negotiations, impenetrability can be a virtue.
Paul Fisher will take over as Director of the Oxford Programme on Negotiation at the end of November 2018.