Negotiating Ideas: Lessons From Brexit

Published: 29 June 2017

Follow these five steps to progress good ideas

In any business, going into a situation with a fixed idea of what you want could result in total rejection. Prepare to collaborate, to adjust and co-create, and yours may still be the idea that wins out.

The UK’s Brexit negotiating stance has so far been positional and assertive. It is an attitude theorists would call “competing”, where a party is seen to pursue its own interests regardless of those on the other side. It’s characterised by Theresa May’s statement that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. It forebodes confrontation and aggression.

This mindset assumes any deal that is acceptable to the EU will be bad for the UK in what is known as the ‘mythical fixed pie’. We assume the size of the pie is fixed, interpreting competitive situations as win-lose and failing to look for trades across issues that could actually expand the pie.

Of course, the reality is the UK will need to take a more “collaborative” approach where a win-win solution becomes possible. The modern geopolitical world demands investment in relationships and both sides’ interests and concerns are simply too important to be compromised.

Likewise, a competing approach is rarely productive within a business because agreement usually requires a wide range of people to work together over a period of time.

We often act as a third party in facilitating a collaborative approach to one of the most complex and sensitive business scenarios of all – the negotiation of ideas. People can get overly attached to their favourite ideas, and relinquishing even a small part of the whole is a psychological challenge. But it’s a necessity in environments where feedback and iteration are inevitable and indeed desirable.

Make it easier for you and your team to progress good ideas (with relationships intact!) by following these five steps:

1. Before you start, remember the negotiation of ideas does not take place in a vacuum. Its context is woven from previous projects, competing agendas and immediate needs.

2. Set expectations and objectives. Prepare both sides for the potential need to adjust their position. It’s rare for an idea to come out of a discussion unchanged. Reinforce the mutual aim of everyone round the table which, in this scenario, is to agree a compelling idea that will benefit the business and a way to take it forward.

3. Ask everyone to state their point of view in turn:

  • Be equally partial. Allow individuals the same amount of time to air their opinion. Listen and ask questions to clarify positions and gain a deeper understanding of what’s influencing their thinking.
  • Keep summarising until you’re satisfied everyone’s interests have been exposed and you’ve gained all the information you need.

4. Facilitate discussion:

  • Open up individual issues for discussion. Go through discomfort (open expressions of feeling often enable the group to move) and don’t rescue the conversation until it becomes stuck and it’s preferable to take up the next issue.
  • But don’t be completely impartial. Help identify the relative importance of different issues to guide people in the right direction, and generate additional options where necessary (and possible).
  • Write up agreements as you go along and state progress made, while reasserting sticking points and drawing attention to the clock if progress has stalled.

5. If a solution cannot be reached in one session, consider what the deadlocks are and how you might break through them:

  • Disputed information: examine underlying assumptions; seek agreement on a reliable source; set criteria to guide information gathering and analysis
  • Refusal to budge: meet with individuals informally to explore hidden agendas and scope for compromise
  • Unacceptable options: reduce options to smaller component parts; review best and worst aspects; change existing options or invent new ones
  • Personality clashes: meet with individuals informally to explore problems; suggest ground rules at the start of the next discussion
  • Loss of momentum: list agreements to date; break for evaluation of progress; review pressures and constraints

When it comes to Brexit, it’s hard to imagine a world in which “no deal” is better than some form of compromise. Indeed, though it may be from a position of post-election weakness that the government has been forced to collaborate, we’re already seeing a softening of the UK positioning, with David Davis agreeing to settle the “divorce” before trying to negotiate a future trade deal.

In any business, going into a situation with a fixed idea of what you want could result in total rejection. Prepare to collaborate, to adjust and co-create, and yours may still be the idea that wins out. Chances are it’ll be a whole lot better than it was in its original form.

Jessie Nicholls
Senior Consultant

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