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How to Treat a Loved One

Stephen White

As the invective from senior French politicians as a result of the UK's negotiating position at the European summit last week becomes harsher, we should maybe ponder the wisdom that long term relationships benefit from Win-Win negotiating style.

The French certainly have taken a very aggressive attitude, now suggesting that the UK's economic position is worse than theirs, so it is the Brits who should be considered for a credit-rating downgrade. This in contrast with Germany, which has, as convention dictates, made soothing noises about the EU maintaining close ties with Great Britain. Do we put the French attitude down to the historic Gallic irritation with 'Les Ros-bifs'.

I detect something else. The deal done last week is coming under increasing pressure from the financial markets because it was unfocussed and vague on numbers. If it fails to do the trick, there will have to be another Summit - they are already talking about one taking place in January - and that the UK will be invited to participate. The French are simply looking for someone to blame.

So how much damage did David Cameron do by saying 'No' last week?  Not much, I think, because the nature of a long term relationship is that you can say No without termination. We all know that from our domestic situations, with spouses and children (and sometimes with parents as well). Disagreement doesn't mean divorce, or being put up for adoption.

But we don't see this understanding transferring to our commercial negotiations with clients, especially long-standing ones. In these situations we can't see past 'the relationship'. Saying No might destroy the relationship, so appeasement, dissembling, and postponement appear to be better.

How wrong. Partners like robustness and honesty in their dealings with each other. Disagreement by others with my viewpoint makes me reconsider, and re-examine my facts and my opinions. I might or might not change my mind; indeed I might take a more entrenched position, but I'm better for the internal review and anyway unlikely to terminate the relationship altogether. Good client-facing people know that pushback, always tactfully, on demands which are unreasonable or inappropriate, is seen by clients as positive behaviour and respected.

However, remember that disagreement in a long term relationship can have unexpected consequences. There is an old joke about a wife who rings her mother. 'We had a big bust-up.' she says 'I asked him to iron his own shirts and he said No. So I'm moving out and coming to live with you.' 'On the contrary' says the mother. 'He must be made to suffer. I'm coming to live with you.'

Anyone fancy M. Sarkozy joining Cameron and Clegg in the coalition?

Stephen White

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