How to break negotiation deadlock

How to break negotiation deadlock

The Telegraph invites comments from Huthwaite on the verbal behaviours at play from Theresa May’s Brexit speech in Florence

In her attempts to avoid a Brexit talks deadlock, the Prime Minister gave an address billed by some as a watershed speech and arguably, the most important of her premiership. Her words will be analysed in great depth by both sides of the EU and by media and experts alike – but what did her behaviour really demonstrate and what impact will this have on the continuation of the talks and Britain’s successful exit from the EU?

There is little doubt that May’s speech was deeply considered and demonstrated many techniques skilled negotiators rely on when breaking a deadlock – which is arguably what we are now faced with. But more tellingly, May has delayed the fourth round of Brexit talks in order to deliver this speech. That tells us she expects – or hopes – to break the deadlock and make some headway through her address. Here, Neil identifies the three main techniques we saw, and explains why these were deployed.

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Common ground

When frustrations and tempers rise, communication can begin to break down and ‘negotiation stagnation’ sets in. A key strategy in neutralising the blocks and restarting the discussion is to re-establish a common ground.  Skilled negotiators will not commence discussion with a summary of the disagreements, as this brings to the fore strong feelings of negativity. A negative atmosphere is not conducive  to positive talks. Instead they remind both sides of their common space. In May’s case, we saw her speak of shared goals, shared history and mutual values. May spent nearly 15 minutes – that’s a third of her total address – setting the climate and reminding us all of our shared “profound sense of responsibility to make this change work” and “our unique, special and deep relationship.” This lengthy aggrandisement of both sides was a deliberate attempt to settle nerves and create a more positive footing from which to move forward.

Giving feelings

No one can argue with how you feel, as the rhetoric goes. But in the verbal behaviours used by skilled negotiators, giving feelings has a calming effect on fraid tempers. May is at pains to tell us how she feels, how the British and EU people feel, and how the EU themselves feel – all of which we saw in today’s address. It’s a researched behaviour known for bringing humanity and reassurance to the sometimes cold and harsh negotiation room, and was perhaps intended to pave the way for the next phase of negotiations.

Setting a positive climate

Setting a positive climate for the ensuing talks is another skilled negotiating behaviour to help bring movement back into stagnation. In today’s address, May reminded us time and again about being ‘creative’, ‘flexible’, ‘collaborative’, ‘pragmatic’. She confidently states her goals but sets out her strategies for achieving them in a carefully considered procedural context. To achieve that, it makes sense to do this. It adds logic and normality while leaving the door open slightly for more negotiation on a particular subject. Rather than drawing a line under a negotiation item, it’s a tactic designed to maintain positive terms. This approach reminds us again that so far, nothing has been agreed, and in May’s mind at least, nothing is off the table.

It’s no secret there’s been some rifts in the negotiation team, not to mention a public schism when it comes to the terms of the desired deal. From what we saw today, there was evidence of an underlying ‘strong and stable’ theme intended for the British people and her own cabinet we suspect. Yes, we’ve heard this before – many times – but its use again, post-Election on such a public stage was an attempt to establish a strong, unified voice and to let the EU – and their negotiators – know that the UK is a solid front. Unification within the team is crucial in any large-scale negotiation, and ultimately, can be a deciding factor when it comes to achieving a win-win.

Did she break the deadlock? Only time will tell. But it was a skilled, and deliberate performance, with expertly crafted language aimed at achieving a very specific outcome.

Learn the behaviours skilled negotiators use and develop your skills – Download  the free guide

About the Author
Neil Clothier

Written by Neil Clothier