By: John Sturrock, IAM Distinguished Fellow in Scotland

Posted July 7, 2016

First published in The Herald in Glasgow.

As we approach months of negotiations among the many parties involved in Brexit and Scotland’s place in Europe and, indeed, the UK, what techniques might we hope to see applied?

Classic negotiation theory emphasises “positional bargaining”: arguing for your own position with a win/lose or “zero-sum game” approach. In other words, “I am right” and “You are wrong”, resources are finite and we must get as much as we can from others.

However, sophisticated negotiators take a different tack. They adopt “principled” strategies, based on identifying the common interests and joint needs of those involved. This approach is likely to reap more benefits in the long run as players in the negotiations are moved to optimise gains for all concerned. They know there is a paradox here: by considering the hopes, concerns, fears and aspirations of others, it is more likely that one’s own interests will be satisfied to a greater extent. Think about this in the context of Europe today.

How might this work for the First Minister? The critical first step is preparation. This will include identifying as clearly as possible what the Scottish Government is seeking to achieve and why. Articulating priorities and being aware of potentially conflicting targets are likely to be important. Similarly, it will be helpful to pay close attention to what might be concerning others and what they might need to hear from Scotland by way of reassurance and acknowledgement of their perspective, along with recognition of the impact of various courses of action. Identifying and emphasising common ground as well as areas of possible misunderstandings and misperceptions will help to build bridges for the future.

By being open to a range of possible options, the Scottish Government will avoid the limitations of binary, black/white thinking that can impede effective negotiation. Good negotiators don’t shut down potential solutions even if they seem doubtful at the moment. It’s better to explore the range of outcomes and assess these objectively against the overall priorities set. New possibilities may emerge in the creative process of problem-solving if you are open to them. [First Minster] Nicola Sturgeon might be advised not to commit or box herself in too early.

“Bottom” or “red” lines seem fine when you want to appear to be playing hardball but frequently they are far less attractive as circumstances outside your control change. Loss of face can become an issue even for senior negotiators. The very best will avoid that situation in the first place by being canny and provisional in their proposals, leaving room for movement as opportunities emerge. Sometimes, they will experiment with ideas (“straw-men” we might call them) and find ways to dispense with these if they become an obstruction. Indeed, the astute negotiator will not even be associated with these ideas, sending in what are sometimes called “wizards”, or dispensable subordinates, to try them out.

Underneath all of this will be a diplomatic offensive, which we may be seeing already, to build relationships with key people. Even if one does not agree with (or even like) the others involved, one has to get on with them in a negotiating capacity. Setting aside time to get to know your counterpart negotiators and their styles, preferences and personal stories is a mark of the thoughtful negotiator. Watch for more of this in the weeks ahead.

It will be important too to remember that there are many and varied constituencies behind the scenes. Understanding the cultures and sub-cultures elsewhere will be helpful when the crunch comes, when your job is to help write “victory speeches” that play well outside as well as inside the negotiating room. Most politicians will be aware of what they need to deliver, or at least appear to be delivering, to their electorates. This is where concessions could be important. The really astute principled negotiator will be acutely aware of what plays well in the constituency of their counterpart. Then they will be prepared to give on some matters to gain on others. The principle of reciprocity could help both achieve what they need.

None of these approaches guarantees success. But the skilful negotiator will know that using such techniques will maximise the possibility of success while reducing the risk of the whole thing blowing up.

After all, these negotiations will only really work if everyone feels that they are a winner.