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Calling Britain’s bluff – have Brexit negotiations become a game of words?

Comments by Tony Hughes, CEO of Huthwaite International, experts in negotiation skills and behaviour training.

Brexit is one of the most complex negotiations to take the world stage for years, and yet the psychology behind ongoing discussions is seemingly ‘game like’. With major stakes at play and talk of a ‘no-deal’ becoming ever more prevalent – is it time to call Britain’s bluff?

With two months to go until the October European Union summit, by which the Brexit deal must be agreed, the gap between what the EU and Britain expect from a potential deal is growing larger by the day. And it seems Britain may be bluffing when it comes to the level of strength it truly has at the negotiation table.

A vital tactic to successful negotiation techniques, is to assume a position of strength. However this position can’t be transparent. If it doesn’t ring true, it can actually weaken a perception of strength. Simply put, if you appear delusional, unreasonable and unwilling to accurately assess your position within the negotiation, you’ll be viewed by the opposing party as weak and untrustworthy.

In Britain’s case, overestimating a position of strength is dangerous. So far, as part of the negotiations, we can see that the UK has actually conceded in a number of areas. From increased planning and talk of a disruptive ‘no-deal’ Brexit for the UK, to using the prospect of a ‘no-deal’ as a bargaining chip, the UK isn’t playing a strong game, and this could be perceived as panic, weakness and a lack of strategic coordination in the face of a potentially messy conclusion to the Brexit negotiations.

So what can the UK do to pull back the stakes and work towards a deal that’s beneficial for both parties? Huthwaite’s research shows that skilled negotiators understand their position and that of the opposing party in great detail. By assessing what the opposition values, and where ‘wiggle room’ lies, the UK could identify areas in which the EU is simply not willing to concede, and use this as a method to gain favour in other areas.

Negotiating is about give and take. Using irritating behaviours – such as veiled threats of a ‘no deal’ – simply won’t move negotiations forward in a direction that is beneficial for both the EU and the UK - generating a stalemate scenario, where neither party can progress feeling satisfied with discussions.

With limited time left. The UK needs to identify the key areas in which the EU will not concede, the key elements that it itself isn’t willing to compromise on, and use the middle ground as a means to negotiate. This means surrendering on points that it knows the EU holds valuable, whilst maintaining a strong position on elements that it isn’t prepared to compromise. This give-and-take approach is the only solution at this late stage.

Ultimately, using bolshy, potentially irritating tactics and throwing around a perceived position of strength could be detrimental for the UK. There should be less talk of a ‘no-deal’ and more talk of how the UK can negotiate successfully on key and complex points to reach a conclusion that is beneficial for both parties. After all, this is a negotiation, not an argument.

Article published in the Express

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Further reading

Companies must take steps to ‘fool-proof’ their business model against Brexit
By Neil Clothier | April 1, 2018

The art of negotiating – what businesses can learn from Brexit
By Neil Clothier | August 31, 2017

Developing effective negotiation skills
By Huthwaite International | May 2, 2016