What Brexit can teach business about the art of negotiation


Expect ‘constructive ambiguity’ to be the order of the day for some time.

As Brexit negotiations are set to restart on the transitional arrangement and future deal, Theresa May looks trapped in a classic bind.

The British public and the EU negotiators want to know where she wants to end up.  Mrs May is reluctant to tell us as inevitably the EU will take that as the British starting point and negotiate from there.

If the British side were to ask for more than they have communicated they are willing to accept, that will simply be seen as empty posturing.

But any compromise by May and her team from the publicly stated end goal will be heavily criticised as a negotiation failure.

The government is in a difficult situation. If it publicly states an unattainably ambitious end goal, to allow for the inevitable give and take in a successful negotiation, the public will feel that achieving anything less is equivalent to losing. So expect “constructive ambiguity” to be the order of the day for some time, despite how unsatisfying and politically unedifying such a stance is.

Here are some tips that can be used in any negotiation situation, and May should keep them in mind when sitting down at the Brexit table.

1. Keep your emotions in check

Ensure that your emotions are appropriate and congruent with what you are saying.

To achieve this, you must keep a genuine mindset of “we are trying to make the pie big enough so that both sides can get a big piece”. Depending on your Achilles’ heel, don’t let frustration, excitement, nerves, or lack of enthusiasm get the better of you.

2. Take a pause

This could simply mean ensuring that the other side has time to process what you are saying.

You could take it to the extent of leaving the room and reconvening at a later date to continue discussions so that you don’t get rushed into a decision that you are not ready to make.

3. Plan your BATNA up front

You must know your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) before you start talks.

We’ve heard a lot about a “no deal”, “hard” or “soft” Brexit. May’s no deal could be her BATNA, but we don’t yet have accurate information as to what the implications of that would be.

4. Focus on the why rather than the what

We often judge others by their behaviours without knowing their intent.

Be sure to ask why they are making that request, and explain why you want something. It’s important to allow the other side to feel heard, which you can achieve by asking why.

However, May should also keep a tactic or two up her sleeve.

The broken record technique is a good one – restate what you want until the other side gets worn down. But an element of charm is required to achieve this, otherwise you might come across as annoying and lacking in emotional intelligence. The same applies to May, who probably doesn’t want to feed her “Maybot” nickname.

With all this in mind, May should try to enjoy the process. If she can make it a positive experience, the chances are she will get a positive outcome.



Read about the Black Isle negotiation programmes.