Gorillas in the mist

Counting passes of a basketball. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But there is a famous experiment which shows that many people get so engrossed in a simple task such as counting passes by a group of basketball players that they completely fail to notice the guy in the gorilla suit who walks through the room.  It’s the downside of focus – so much attention is devoted to what we think is the main task that we completely fail to see what really should be obvious.

And as recent discussions about Brexit negotiations show, we fall into this trap every day.  Our mantra is that Brexit means Brexit, and we say that we are going to be “tough negotiators” as if this is the only thing that’s needed to get a decent result.  We are also quick to characterise our opponents in similar fashion – the first thing that the British media have had to say about the EU’s proposed lead negotiator, Mr Barnier, is that he is a tough negotiator, unpopular in London and that his appointment is an “act of war”.

As a commercial mediator, I spend much of my time working with parties in deadlocked negotiations and disputes, so these mind-sets are disturbingly familiar.  Disturbing because they usually fail to work.  Not just because the team on the other side of the table aren’t pussycats either, but because of what some Harvard Business School academics have called Competitive Arousal –  “an adrenaline-fueled emotional state…where the primal urge to win often overwhelms rational decision making…. When managers and executives…shift their goals from maximizing value to beating the competition at almost any cost.”

In other words, when we get into negotiations, the red mist tends to come down and we lose the plot.  We focus on getting what we want, we personalise the issues, and we lose sight of the main challenge in negotiation, which is to persuade the other side to let us have what is important to us.

As parents, we see our young children take their first negotiation steps by making demands – “I want” they say – but after a while they learn that this strategy alone very rarely works, so instead they move on to more effective strategies, identifying what relationship buttons they need to push such as, for example, working out which parent is likely to be the most amenable, or playing one parent off against the other, both examples of changing a negotiation process when a strategy doesn’t work.

A few years ago, I was engaged as an independent mediator to chair negotiations between British Sugar and the National Farmers Union about terms of trade, including future pricing arrangements, for the UK’s £250 million sugar beet industry.  The headlines before I was called in paint a familiar picture: “sugar negotiations in disarray”, “calls for solidarity ahead of sugar price meeting” and “sugar beet price negotiations remain in deadlock”.  Replace “sugar” with “Brexit” for my prediction of next year’s headlines.

However, in spite of this deadlock, the headlines were turned around just three months later: “the annual squabbling match between British Sugar and the NFU over sugar beet prices could be a thing of the past”.  We did this by moving the discussions beyond a simple debate about a headline price, by adding issues to the agenda and finding opportunities for the parties to collaborate for the benefit of the industry as a whole.

But even more importantly, we changed the dynamic of the process by focussing on improving relationships. Thus, for example, to build understanding between the negotiation teams, they didn’t just have a social lunch together, in which talk of business was barred, but they all went on a factory tour so that everyone understood how a muddy sugar beet gets turned into the pure white stuff in our kitchen.  Conversely the company team were given a thorough education on the life of a farmer and the economics of sugar beet farming, including the potential attractiveness of alternative crops.

We also spent time talking about how we would structure the negotiation process – in effect, having talks about talks.  We agreed structures for meetings, and a phasing of agenda items, and most importantly we agreed reporting-back arrangements, as clearly the negotiations were taking place in the public gaze, with some 5,000 individual farmers looking over their negotiating team’s shoulder.  And as a result of this careful preparation, our negotiations made steady progress.  Certainly we still had set-backs and deadlock, but when we did so, at least each side understood where the other was coming from, and what was important to them.

So, in summary, whereas everyone talks about negotiation as being all about winning for their side, and that what we need is a lead negotiator who is a committed Brexiteer who can be tough on the Europeans and stand up for Britain, the real-world truth is far more complicated than that.  In fact, there are three sides to the negotiation triangle, Relationship (how do we relate to each other?), Process (how are we going to negotiate the subject matter?) and Content (what is it we are negotiating?) , and each needs to be separately thought about as part of the vital work of negotiation preparation and planning.

With the Brexit talks, we know very well that everything will come to a head in a set-piece summit, in which our leaders work through the night, exhaust the coffee supply and themselves and then emerge heroically to declare they have achieved a great victory (which never looks quite so impressive in the cold light of day).  But if the only brief we give our team is that they have to be tough, we probably won’t even get to a deal.  That’s the real gorilla in the room.

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