By James South, CEDR Director of Training
For those interested in negotiation, the forming of the recent coalition government in the United Kingdom is an excellent case study. Last night’s documentary on the BBC – ‘Five days that changed Britain’ – offers a fascinating insight into what makes for effective negotiations and what does not.
The first learning point for effective negotiation to come out of last night’s programme, was the importance of attitude and approach in changing what could have been a very adversarial negotiation into a much more collaborative one. Evidence David Cameron’s first speech on the day after the election:
“I want to make a big, open and comprehensive offer to the Liberal democrats. I believe that we in the Conservative party can give ground, both in the national interest, and in the interest in forging an open and trusting partnership with the Liberal Democrats.”
In an interview on this Cameron later added:
“I didn’t think we did coalitions in Britain, but waking up on the morning after the election, with the numbers as they were, the situation as bleak as it was for the country, it seemed to me this was the right thing to do.”
Interestingly, most of the Labour team saw this as a political mistake by the Conservatives, however it proved to be the approach which signalled the start of a collaborative negotiation process that resulted in a Lib-Con Coalition government.
Finally, in terms of attitude and negotiation approach, Nick Clegg added at the end of the programme:
“I remember having a conversation with David Cameron, an important conversation, where we said we either go the whole hog and make the big compromises or frankly it wasn’t worth it. We separately came to the conclusion that you can’t half do this, you do it properly or don’t do it at all.”
This clearly demonstrated that both leaders realised that approaching this negotiation as they might a debate in the commons was not going to work. They instinctively realised that for the Coalition Government to be formed and for it to survive, strong and effective working relationships based on trust would need to be developed. This therefore lead to both parties adopting a more collaborate approach with each other.
This leads on to the second learning point for effective negotiation, the importance of developing rapport in order to build strong working relationships between the negotiators and the principals. Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg commented on the fact that they personally got on well together and during their discussions over the five days of coalition negotiations, they realised quite quickly that they could work together.
Conversely the relationship between Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg was not a strong one.
The first telephone call between the two men following the election did not go well, with Nick Clegg diplomatically saying: “he spoke more than I did. He wanted to make sure his side of the story was heard.”
Peter Mandelson was less circumspect when he said that Clegg probably found Brown a bit ‘Gordonish’ and that Brown: “could have given Nick the opportunity to speak rather than to be spoken to. There should have been a little more come to me rather than tell you were to go.”
When the two men met in person, others at the meeting commented on how bad the body language was, a sure sign that there was little rapport.
The fact that the two leaders of the negotiating parties found it difficult to work together did not lay a strong foundation for effective future negotiations.
The importance of rapport and a good working relationship was also demonstrated as between the negotiating teams themselves. It was clear that the relationship between the Conservative and Liberal democrat negotiating teams was much more constructive in tone and approach than that between the Labour team and their Liberal counterparts, with both teams describing the other at their second meeting as “arrogant”.
These meetings between negotiating teams also demonstrates another key factor in effective negotiating – preparation. It was clear from watching the programme, that the Conservatives and Liberal democrats had prepared for potential hung parliament negotiations and further they prepared for every telephone call and meeting between leaders and their negotiating teams.
The same cannot be said for the Labour negotiating team, who for their first meeting with the Liberals, had not, it seemed, even discussed their strategy or prepared in any way with Ed Balls saying that he wasn’t even sure that the team had met together before going into negotiations! No wonder things didn’t go well for them.
These are only a few lessons in effective negotiation which came out of this programme on the background to the coalition negotiations, there are many more. Ultimately what is interesting to me is that the effective negotiation of the Conservative and Liberal teams triumphed over what should have been an easier negotiation with Labour on policy issues, because the Conservatives and Liberals paid attention to style, relationship and process and not just outcome.