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Why taking a position is the wrong way to negotiate a complicated agreement

The typical negotiations that most people run across, or undertake, are based on two starting positions and finding a compromise that can be ‘lived with’ by both sides. You sell your house for slightly less than you wanted, and the buyer pays slightly more. It’s not win-win, but the lose-lose is bearable.

It’s not how you create a Good Friday agreement or a peace deal between Israel and Egypt in relation to the Sinai after the 6-day war. Positional bargaining doesn’t work when the positions are irreconcilable and compromise creates a lose so large (for both sides). One way to tell is that the rhetoric tends towards “no deal is better than a bad deal”. In NI and in Israel long and difficult positional negotiations repeatedly broke down and violence (no deal) became the default (better than a bad deal).

What has to happen if an agreement is diverse, multifaceted, interdependent (so nothing is agreed until everything is agreed) is that you start by agreeing principles not setting out positions. You have to agree what the outcomes could be, and not be attached to particular flavours provided the principle is met. Then you seek out and construct solutions to the challenges that nobody had thought of before going into the negotiations.

In the Good Friday agreement what broke the deadlock was power sharing, At the start of the negotiations, nobody was considering that. It was constructed during the negotiations as a way of addressing the principles both sides set out. Positionally it didn’t address either opening positions. In the Sinai, the issues of Egyptian ownership of the land and the need for Isreal not to feel threatened by Egypt’s military was a demilitarisation of the desert with independent verification. Isreal did not go to war to get that, but the principle of security was clearly important.

At the time of writing the UK is in the last days of an Election Campaign, nominally at least, mostly on the issue of negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU. Whatever the outcome of both events there are lessons for all businesses that we can draw on to improve our own negotiations. But some difficult elements are just being deliberately avoided. There’s no learning beyond the mistake of doing that, sadly.
One example is immigration. Our position is all about control of our borders, but why? What’s the principle we are trying to achieve? I don’t think we can tell beyond “control” and “fewer”, which aren’t really principles. There’s a host of ways to solve the immigration issue and some may allow a form of ‘free movement’ that meets the principles the EU wish. We aren’t even bothering to find out. That’s an example of positional negotiations and why they end in either no deal or a lose-lose compromise.

What this does demonstrate is that we often take positions because they are easier to both define and understand than principles, and in a two-party discussion serve our purposes in most cases. Positional negotiation is fine for me to negotiate the day rate on my next contract, but even there if I am clear about the principles of working with my client I tend to find we end up with unexpected, but mutually much more rewarding, outcomes than when I stick to a position.

What’s the best, unexpected, outcome you have had from a negotiation?

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