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Could revealing the economic impact to the UK on Brexit effect negotiations with the EU?

Senior negotiation specialist at Huthwaite International, Neil Clothier, reveals the impact of showing your hand in negotiation and shares his expertise on how Theresa May and David Davis can apply damage limitation if forced to release the Brexit papers.

The Government is likely to be forced to release documents assessing the economic impact Brexit could have on Britain. Sparked by a Labour motion, the release of the 58 studies received a unanimous pass vote by the Commons. Yet, there’s deep reservation from leading ministers, not least the PM herself, when it comes to this motion – the questions that begs is, why?

In the midst of perhaps the most intricate and complex negotiation process of our times, it’s little wonder that the UK’s leaders lean on the side of caution when it comes to what could be seen as revealing one’s hand. Furthermore, the papers in question could undermine the negotiation process due to their contents and perhaps their less than favourable outlook for the economy.

It seems that the art of negotiation is being played three-fold, as the Government stretches to strike the balance between focusing on the rather complex task of negotiating itself out of the EU, whilst also appeasing both its own and cross-party members of parliament – all whilst keeping its hand and trying to assert a strong position from which to negotiate.

A task that some have deemed impossible – but is it? The intricate art of negotiation has never been so vital, but there are key techniques and skills that must be adopted to ensure the flames aren’t fuelled. And it begins with positioning and understanding the true areas that are open for negotiation.

Being strategic in these situations is nothing short of essential – indeed, trying to get somebody to do what you want from a disadvantaged position may seem reminiscent to chasing the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, but it can be mastered.

So, how do you get someone to do something that you want them to do?

Using research spanning four decades, we can examine the proven techniques and skills that can be effectively deployed by the UK’s politicians when it comes to persuasion, and how to work on ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ to such an extent that customers are desperate to take action in their favour.

It comes down to the four essential ingredients to any negotiation. Whether negotiations are political or not they still require a set of knowledge and skills that can be applied in a range of circumstances. The first being power - Power is in the head; how powerful an individual feels at the negotiation table will impact how powerfully they behave and what they ultimately achieve. Does David Davis feel powerful when he’s representing a country divided and a party fractured further still? Regardless of whether he may have the upper hand, it’s essential that Theresa May acts to unite both in order to assist Davis in his power play. This is particularly relevant considering that some Conservative party members have called for the release of the Brexit papers – suggesting inner party turmoil of sorts. Theresa May must work to resolve this, and swiftly too if David Davis is to assume a position of power as negotiation talks continue. When a party stands united it is naturally much stronger – take the year of Labour leadership as an example. When the focus shifts from resolving issues as a united front, to squabbling between party members, leadership is weakened. This is a perception that must be avoided.

The second is a focus on strategic direction assisted by carefully considered supporting tactics – in a nutshell, Davis needs to carefully consider what he wants to achieve and what behavioural tactics he can implement to achieve said objectives – a difficult task in a changing economic, political and social environment. Not least as what are thought to be the last round of talks are scheduled to take place throughout November. This means time is undoubtedly of the essence, which can lead to knee jerk reactions in a bid to ‘close the deal’ as it were. This approach is dangerous and often leads to ‘irritators’ being unwittingly implemented – often resulting in counterproductive talks. Sticking to the brief and focusing in on his objectives has to remain the priority for Davis. Which leads to perhaps our most important point, preparation and planning – the third ingredient.

Our research has proven time and time again that skilled negotiators focus more on planning (deciding what to do with data and knowledge) that on preparation (the process of collecting data). This may put the UK at a disadvantage. If the EU implement savvy negotiation tactics, they will utilise data revealed by the Brexit papers being made public. Indeed, smart negotiators will take this data and knowledge and use it to plan and in turn strengthen their position. In practice, this means that Davis must focus on the tactical implementation of the fourth ingredient – behaviour. There are key behaviours that can be adopted to improve negotiations and others that must be avoided. This can mean the make or break between being on the back or front foot – regardless of your starting position.

So, what are these secret behaviours and how can they be implemented to gain an upper hand – regardless of what information is released?

Davis needs to ask more than he tells. Seeking reasons for the other party’s position means you can explore their underlying strategic objectives. And by using incisive questions you can create some doubt in their minds about their approach. Doubt creates movement, and movement is what Davis trying to generate, not least if he’s in a disadvantaged position. If Davis is to focus on seeking information and clear stance from the EU, he may strengthen his position – potentially levelling out any impact incurred through the release of such papers.

Expressive language also needs to be adopted by Davis – sharing what he feels verbally. Whether he’s saying: “I’m delighted we’re moving closer together on this point”, or “I’m disappointed that you’re not able to extend the offer further”, this is powerful verbal behaviour. Though Davis may disagree on the substance of the negotiation, nobody can refute comments on his own feelings, and referring to them can often help establish a co-operative climate. It is this climate that is key to leading progressive talks. On the final round of negotiations, a ‘dead lock’ scenario is a no, no. In the spirit of avoiding such a result, there are also behaviours Davis should avoid at all costs around the negotiating table, self-praising declarations like “I’m making you a very fair offer” are among the phrases we call irritators. “I’ll be honest with you” is another example – it makes the opposition question if you were being dishonest before. Finally, counterproposals – whilst tempting for many (not least in the final stages of a negotiation process) - can be counterproductive. If Davis starts to respond with an immediate alternative, despite the clicking clock, it is tantamount to saying: “I’m not listening to you, I have certain aims and I’m sticking to them.” And if anyone around the Brexit table is not listening, they’re not really negotiating… resulting in a ‘no deal’ or the aforementioned ‘deadlock’.

Whilst the release of the Brexit papers may be out of Davis’ hands, the impact of their release will no doubt have an effect on his negotiation tactics, potentially putting the UK on the backfoot. Despite this, Brexit negotiations must, and will, continue. If Davis is to succeed, he needs to adopt smart negotiation tactics. A strategy that should ensure the release of said Brexit papers needn’t impact the process drastically. Davis need to maintain power, stick to the strategy and be clear and open to conversation, whilst Theresa May must hold rank, appease her party and demonstrate strength in unity.

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Further reading

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