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Chequers Mate – how to break the deadlock in negotiations

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Beyond Boris’s inelegant turd-polishing outburst exactly what went on behind the heavy doors and high windows of Chequers during the Cabinet’s Brexit awayday negotiations will be kept secret under the Thirty Year Rule. And by the time the minutes are released to the National Archive Brexit may have been such an unalloyed success/disaster (delete depending on your own disposition) that only the nerdiest constitutional historians pore over them. But we don’t have to wait until 2048 to find out because ACM Training’s mediation and negotiation techniques trainer, Sandy Keating, has imagined, in her inimitable Australian way, how the discussions might have been handled…

Even before the ministerial limousines started sweeping down the narrow Buckinghamshire lanes, the most eagle-eyed hacks would have noticed an Office Depot van turn into the Chequers’ driveway. In the back a stack of flipchart pads and a dozen or so boxes of fat felt pens. You really can’t negotiate without these tools of the trade. Oh, and Post It notes. Everybody loves Post It notes although, because this was a Conservative get together, the driver was told in no uncertain terms not to bring any of those pinko lefty ones. Or orange ones for that matter because the colour would remind them too much of Nick Clegg. In fact, the only exception to the fifty shades of blue rule was to be several rolls of crimson sticky tape to mark out those uncrossable red lines.

Joking aside, the language you use in negotiation is important. All this talk of red lines is incendiary. It’s perfectly acceptable to make clear you have a position that would be difficult or impossible to give way on. But you must articulate it in an even-tempered way. Cool heads and dispassionate language are, or at least should be, the order of the day. Because, of course, once tempers flare and people start taking things personally positions tend to become entrenched.

When this happens and people are deadlocked I suggest both (or more) parties work separarely in break out groups and list what they want – which is where those flipcharts and pens come in. Then I ask them, in discussion, to put that list in order of importance. The items at the top will necessarily be the things they’re not prepared to give up. But in order to keep those things maybe they are prepared – willing even – to give way on some of the items towards the bottom of the list.

It may seem very old fashioned in this age of tablets and smarphones but actually writing stuff down – making a mark on a piece of paper – is a penny drop moment for so many of the people I’ve trained to negotiate and mediate. When the sides come back together to compare and contrast notes it’s almost always easier to see (literally) the negotiation in terms of WIN-WIN-lose-lose rather than WIN-LOSE. What’s the difference? Well I’ve used upper and lower case letters to emphasise that in order for both sides to win big they both have to lose small – rather than one side winning big at the expense of the other losing big.

The challenge with the Brexit negotiations at a UK-EU level is that one side at least doesn’t seem to know what it wants. Perhaps there weren’t enough flips charts in the back of that van. Possibly they forgot to order enough BluTack. Or, more likely, the caretaker at Chequers wouldn’t let them stick it on the antique wallpaper. That’ll be it. We’re coming unstuck literally and metaphorically.