How I Learned to Stay Quiet and Become a Brexit Negotiator

  • Top tips include keeping the big boss out of the room
  • Beware of red herrings and understand your emotional state

After five minutes in negotiation boot camp, one thing is clear -- I’m probably not the man Theresa May is looking for.

As a gregarious Irishman, I talk too much. Plus, I have a deep-rooted need to be liked, so I cave in too easily. “You are now what we call a conscious incompetent,” negotiation coach Steve Gates tells me.

I’m an awful negotiator, but at least I know it now, he says. Thus, begins my journey to become a Brexit negotiator.

May is budgeting millions of pounds to train staff to negotiate, as the U.K. prepares to hammer out new trade deals with the EU and potentially across the globe. Gates, who runs the Gap Partnership, teaches executives these skills over three and a half days. We didn’t have that, so in an hour, Gates taught me some of the basics.

1. Know Yourself

A negotiator needs to understand themselves. As I said, I like to be liked, and so avoid conflict. “Liked is not respected,” Gates sternly tells me. Second, I rush to fill any silence. This, I learn, is a mistake.

Steve Gates

Source: Mike Ellis Photography

2. Know Your Enemy

Before talks start, get to know your adversary. Share a little information to win trust and gain some in return. Research your opponent. In Brexit Secretary David Davis’s position, find out who is influencing chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier, and what their preferences are. And hope you have picked the right enemy.

“If you negotiate with a trained negotiator, you are more likely to get a better deal than with an untrained negotiator, because they are likely to become principled, emotional, and deadlock a deal,” says Gates. “They don’t understand the rules of engagement.”

3. Beware the Red Herring

When agreeing the agenda, tread carefully. Your opponent will often try throw in “red herrings,” issues they will happily sacrifice to gain leverage elsewhere.

“So, Europe says we can’t agree Brexit until we decide what happens to Gibraltar,” says Gates. “They don’t expect to make any headway. They may be there to lose.”

4. Play at Home

Set your demands out first. A lot of negotiators are reluctant or embarrassed to set out their position first, afraid of being too generous. But by taking the initiative, you are effectively “playing at home” and the game gets played on your terms. “It’s your terms you should be talking about, not theirs,” Gates says.

“I’m looking for...” I say, as we role-play an imaginary salary negotiation. He shoots me down immediately, telling me to avoid such a phrase as it implies I’m too easily open to negotiation.

5. Get Comfortable With Silence

Don’t rush to fill a pause in conversation. “You need to think,” Gates says. “Just say nothing, rather than being socially driven to fill the gap by saying what you are thinking, what you are feeling. You don’t want the other side to know that.”

6. The Finish Line Is in Sight...

You’ve spent months, years in talks, you are emotionally invested in the outcome. That’s when you become vulnerable, Gates says, as the opponent throws in a couple of late demands. His advice: sit tight, control your emotions, weigh, consider. Don’t capitulate because you want to get home. Don’t walk out in anger. Step back, weigh it up.

“Don’t become a victim of your emotions,” says Gates. “Sometimes a deal may be better than no deal.”

Read more: Britain’s Not-So-Sweet Options for EU Trade Deal

7. Keep the Big Boss Out of the Room at All Costs

“The most senior person in a negotiation is the most dangerous person, because they are the person who can say, yes,” he says.

The decision-maker tends to have too much at stake. He gives the example of a CEO who focuses on the short term share-price impact of a deal rather than its intrinsic merits. The only exception is when what he calls a “top-to-top” intervention is needed to break a logjam, such as May’s surprise dash to Brussels to meet some top-level EU officials last week. Even then, he says, don’t allow them to discuss details.

His advice to May? First, unite the Cabinet around a clear strategy. Second, understand most strategies fail, so have a bunch of fall-back positions ready.

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