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Tiptoeing around Brexit negotiations is not an option

There is also the cultural aspect that could worsen a fraught situation

Image Credit: José Luis Barros/©Gulf News
Gulf News

The opening shots have been fired in the most challenging and complex negotiations in history. The parties have appointed their negotiating teams — each busy working on strategy — and with a clear deadline of — now — less than two years. It’s also one of the most multi-cultural — the 27 EU members and the UK.

It may seem that the UK has the easier task — one country, one team against 27; but the stakes are even higher for the UK with the risk of no-deal leaving the country with no formal working arrangements with the EU, post-Brexit in 2019. But consider the UK’s party politics, the need to appease the 48 per cent of “Remain” voters, the position of businesses, trades unions, industry lobbies such as the vital financial services industry, and the role of the City.

The immediate task is to unravel 40 plus years of complex legislation and mutual commitments. And all of this is to be done in public and set against a volatile political backdrop — and in the full glare of the media.

The UK now faces a resurgent, united and confident EU team, which has already dictated the negotiating process. It will now be a negotiation of two halves — first the “divorce” (by the mandatory two-year deadline) and then the negotiation of the longer term trading relationship.

The clock is ticking on this very serious undertaking that will set the tone of European politics and economics and influence the fortunes of both parties for the next generation and beyond. Complex though Brexit is, the principles of cross-cultural negotiations still apply even in these circumstances, which puts unique pressures on leaders, lead negotiators and negotiating teams.

Where do you start? The first consideration must be — what is the negotiation objective and strategy of each party? Is it to win, achieve a win-win, reach a fair agreement, or maximise the gains?

At the heart of this negotiation process lies the value discovery phase, which should reveal what each party’s interests are; because a negotiation has no value if it does not satisfy at least one party’s interests.

The starting point must be putting all the interests on the table, categorising and then prioritising them. Sharing interests builds trust and mutual confidence through transparency, and the parties are then better able to create value for each other.

Single issues limit the scope and if negotiators broaden the issues to discuss more issues, there is more potential for mutual value. If there are different interests, these can be traded; if there are conflicting interests, then contingent clauses can be added.

If negotiations start with interests rather than positions, then the negotiation becomes more mutualised immediately and there is a stronger interdependence between the two parties. The fact is that the key to a successful conclusion and outcome is the realisation that both parties need each other.

So, the smaller the number of issues to negotiate, the fewer the shared interests and the harder it is to find value in the negotiations.

Brexit clearly offers a multitude of issues and interests but with the two-step process already focusing on relatively few interests (for example, the Brexit divorce cost, rights of citizens, and the Irish border) there is already a very narrow focus. The sequential approach (separating the divorce terms from the future relationship) also means there is little opportunity to trade long- and short-term objectives.

Once interests are shared, what objectives and strategy can be considered? These could be anything from the target ideal outcome to the best alternative to a negotiated settlement, to a walk away point.

This is all great theory and may be a simple enough process until you factor-in culture to the mix.

Brexit is one of the most multi-cultural negotiations ever. All the negotiating parties bring their cultures to the negotiating table and this can have a significant impact.

For example, culture influences our view of hierarchy and power, how we consider group versus individual dynamics, how we make decisions (consensual or top down), our basic bias towards universalism or particularism, our flexibility or rigidity, the level of comfort with ambiguity, and how trust is developed.

Culture permeates our communications — low context (task focused), high context (relationship focused) — and influences the way we communicate and exchange information and deal with conflict, as individuals, as a group and within a hierarchy.

The cultural challenges to overcome include our bias and taboos, which is essential if we are to create empathy, openness and trust, and is supported by our cultural levels of patience (our perception of time), our levels of tolerance, and even sense of humour (the UK culture places a high value on humour).

Here are some building blocks for any cross-cultural negotiator to consider:

* First, anticipate differences in strategy and tactics that may cause misunderstandings.

* Analyse cultural differences to identify differences in values;

* Recognise that the other party may not share your view of what constitutes power;

* Avoid attribution errors;

* Find out how to show respect in the other culture; find out how time is perceived in the other culture;

* Know your options for change; find out what “yes” actually means (or you may get a nasty surprise).

The art and rules of cross-cultural negotiation apply even to these extraordinary Brexit negotiations, and we wish the negotiators every success.

The writer is a lawyer and a corporate educator working with The University of Manchester’s executive education programme in the Middle East.

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