Business Development Series Posted by David McDermott


So, what have we learnt so far from the opening chapters of Brexit?

One of the traps awaiting naïve and unskilled negotiators is the temptation to settle some of the ‘easy’ issues early. By ‘easy’, I mean those that are not necessarily major priorities for either party and often feel like matters of shared interest.

The attractions of this approach seem self-evident: they are unlikely to be contentious; they will help develop a collaborative atmosphere from the start; we can prove to ourselves and others that we are making progress.

However, settling issues early is fraught with danger. By all means discuss some easy issues early, but avoid settling them at all costs.

Why? Well, one of the fundamental principles of negotiation is the inter-dependency of issues. A concession by one party on one issue requires a corresponding concession from the other party on a different issue. At a simple level, an increase in the project scope will entail an adjustment in the contract length and/or price. A discount structure may be possible, but will be dependent upon an increase in volume and improved payment terms.

And if it’s the case that all issues are interdependent, then they should not be settled individually. By all means discuss an issue, but only ever settle it provisionally:

“I think we can agree on this, provided everything else works.”

Skilled negotiators ensure that they retain the right to revisit an issue in the event of deadlock on others. Like the old variety act, all the plates should all be kept spinning and they all come down at the same time!

If not, there are two major problems.

Problem No 1: Settling easy issues early means that, as the negotiation progresses, all that are left are the difficult ones. In the absence of anything less contentious to talk about, the climate declines and those tough topics become more and more intractable.

Problem No 2: The easier issues may not be high priority for either party but each will still put a different value on them. Settling them early runs the risk of discarding negotiation ‘levers’.

A ‘lever’ is something that costs you less than the value the other party ascribes to it and can be traded in return for something that you really want. The simplest example is where sales organisations ‘bundle’ additional low-cost extras with a product to maintain or increase the price. Those extras are cheap for them to provide, but a buyer would have to pay a comparatively higher price to acquire them separately.

So, going back to Brexit, what might be the relevant trap? Well there has been some speculation that an easy issue that we could settle early is the matter of residency rights for existing ex-pats – UK ex-pats in Europe; EU ex-pats in the UK.

It has all the hallmarks we’ve described: it might not seem as important as some of the huge geo-political and economic issues; it sounds like a shared interest; it should be comparatively simple to agree. And the negotiators on both sides could bask in the warm feeling of having made progress on an issue that is crucial to some of our citizens’ lifestyles.

After all, isn’t it unfair to use people as bargaining chips? Well, like it or not, they are. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: everything is negotiable except death and taxes. The existing ex-pat issue might be easy, but it should only be settled when everything else is.

The matter might also have some leverage. According to Full Fact, an independent UK fact-checking charity, there are 1.2 million UK-born people living in other EU countries, mainly Western Europe. But they also estimate that there are around 3 million UK residents from other EU countries. Many of them support dependants in their home country and the funds they repatriate are vital to those economies. This imbalance could confer some bargaining power that should not simply be given away.

So, Theresa, don’t settle any issue quickly – keep those plates spinning!

< Back to edoBuzz