“Well, that’s another fine mess you’ve got me into, Stanley.”

For those of us old enough to remember, that phrase evokes a picture of a rotund Oliver Hardy taking off his hat with his right hand, rumpling his hair with his left, and shaking his head at his woebegone partner in misadventure, Stan Laurel. Through no fault of their own (mostly), these two would find themselves in regular scrapes – pianos rolling away from their distracted hands, vehicles landing in duck ponds. A rich variety of slapstick to amuse my childhood Saturday mornings some forty years ago – a time when my parents were weighing up the pros and cons of being in or out of the European Union, their “Brinnit” to our Brexit.

What would Oliver Hardy have made of the situation we found ourselves in on Friday 24th June?

Regardless of your politics and how you voted on the 23rd, you’ll agree that the UK has a challenging time ahead of it. The last couple of weeks have been full of enough slapstick to keep Stan and Ollie going for years, and the excitement shows no sign of stopping any time soon. But the impact of our vote on the 23rd June 2016 is already being felt – in the currency markets, the decisions of global organisations, projects being put ‘on hold’ (indefinitely, as one acquaintance of mine said wryly, £1.2million of scheduled work having been lost to his business in the days following the vote).

Among the many questions facing us, the one that’s been worrying me is how we’re going to negotiate our way out of this one (Stanley). How do we negotiate Brexit?

Unpicking the UK’s relationship with the EU, and creating something better, brighter, more profitable for our islands and our people – that, surely, is the objective of the Brexiteers. But do we have the skills, the brains, the tools to negotiate such a sensitive, complex, interwoven web of trade agreements, legislation, committee decisions, tariffs and treaties?

For some years, I’ve been training business people in the art of negotiation. They’ve ranged from junior sales people and engineers, through senior commercial managers of global businesses, to CEOs. And my experience in the training room and on the coalface of commercial negotiation, together with the behaviours I’m seeing in our leaders and those of our European partners, makes me fear for the outcome of the upcoming negotiations.

While the Article 50 button has not yet been pressed (and indeed, if some get their way, will never be pressed), negotiations for Brexit have already begun. Negotiation starts with positioning. Each side creates, whether consciously or unconsciously, an impression in the mind of the other about where they sit, what matters to them, and how they are likely to behave in the upcoming negotiations.

So what positions have been indicated so far?

My teenage daughters tell me that their foreign friends think we Brits are selfish, xenophobic and foolish. The position we have communicated to the global community is that we dislike immigrants, that we only want to be part of the EU if we get out significantly more than we put in, and that we are quite prepared to cut off our noses to spite our proverbial faces.

The French have indicated that this is the moment they’ve been waiting for – finally, an opportunity to thumb their noses at their uncultured neighbour and wrestle financial market supremacy from London.

The Germans, stoic and practical, see Brexit as an obstacle to the European harmony and growth they’ve been striving for. Us Brits, long the disruptive classmate to Germany’s school prefect, have really done it this time. Maintaining progress in the European Project has been tough in the face of the refugee crisis of the last 18 months. Those who feel Germany is carrying more than its fair share of the burden will be quick to exploit the growing cracks.

Why do positions matter?

We all know how quickly the press blow things out of proportion, how a perfectly ordinary, sensible comment can be portrayed as an inflammatory jibe. Surely we’re grown-up enough to set all this aside in the coming political and trade negotiations?

The challenge, as I’ve witnessed over many, many real-life and classroom negotiations, is that we feel a deep-seated need to be consistent with our public image. If we set the expectations of our stakeholders (from citizens to CEOs) that we will ‘seize back our borders and our sovereignty’, it becomes difficult for us to accept an outcome that does not appear to meet this expectation – even if we determine that such an outcome would be in the best interests of the British people.

At Devant, we teach our negotiators to focus on interests, not positions. To ask questions – of our stakeholders and our counterparties – that uncover the outcomes that meet the underlying needs of each party. And to seek opportunities for mutual gain – how can we leverage our respective assets and capabilities to create a bigger ‘whole’ for both of us? What do I have that you need, and vice versa?

Interests-based negotiation is hard. Time and again, I’ve seen experienced, competent negotiators revert to positional bargaining because it’s easier than the alternative. They fall back into old habits, rather than putting aside their positions and asking questions. “Why is that important to you?” “What are you seeking to achieve?” “How would that work, in your ideal world?” “What if…?”

The more complex the scenario, the greater the opportunities for mutual gain. We teach negotiators to search out the longest possible list of potential tradeables, from both their own and their counterparty’s perspective. This maximises options for value-creation, and is, therefore, a good thing from a negotiation perspective.

But when things get too complex and too interwoven, they become too difficult. Rather than embracing the value-creation opportunities of interests-based negotiation, we retreat to our positions. Positions are simple. They are our ‘red lines’ – they remove complexity, subtlety, and the need to think deeply. How much simpler to announce “The UK must have control of its borders!” than to weigh up the complex web of costs and benefits of different approaches to free movement of people, and search for an optimal way forward?

So negotiating Brexit will, I fear, be an unedifying experience. The UK has a serious deficit of experienced trade negotiators, having long ago handed that role to Brussels. While this may sound like victory for those in Brussels, an unbalanced negotiation is good for neither party. Only thoughtful, capable, experienced negotiators will be able to find a way through the challenges ahead of us that creates the better, brighter, more profitable future the Brexiteers wished for. The question is, where will we find them? And will they be up to the gargantuan challenges ahead?

Do you find yourself retreating to a fixed position in negotiations? Let’s explore how interest-based negotiations can help you create greater opportunities for mutual gain. Drop me an email or call me for a chat.

Tiffany Kemp
Founder and Managing Director, Devant