Back in the 1990s, when I’d been sent by my employers to learn about how to negotiate more effectively, I recall thinking about the final two steps (close and agree) – well really, what’s the substantive difference? Any deal not aligned with both parties’ interests (i.e. agreed) surely can’t be closed? And if you’re closing a deal – well, how can you do that if there’s disagreement about the variables on the table?
Over the next 25 years, I set about experiencing the sometimes painful differences between two distinct – and very important – stages in negotiating! And a couple of recent events have really made me think about how we can illustrate the critical differences. Firstly let’s head to Washington DC where the US government narrowly avoided shutdown through gaining agreement on budget funding, albeit for the not-very-reassuring period of 45 days. As reported, the price that Joe Biden paid to veer away from the cliff edge was the removal of funding for Ukraine’s defence over that time period. That closed the deal. So it must be agreed, right? Maybe not – let’s see what Biden said in the immediate aftermath of the “agreement”: "We cannot, under any circumstances, allow US support to Ukraine to be interrupted." If I was going to characterise that statement in relation to the budget deal, “disagreement” might be the word that springs to mind. The obvious problem with a fundamental disagreement in our day-to-day negotiations is that implementation of the deal may become problematic – and we’ll see how this plays out in the US between now and the next deadline. Whatever happens, I doubt folk will look upon last week’s deal and think of it as being an agreement, despite the deal being struck.
But our ability to agree isn’t only torpedoed by opposing differences in philosophy or opinion. Sometimes it can be very basic. In North London on the weekend, with a player already sent off, Liverpool broke up the field and surprised Spurs by scoring. Or, so they thought – until the goal was flagged offside. But! The introduction of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in football has enabled an absolute decision – such as offside – to be clarified through the use of technology. The fact that Liverpool’s Diaz looked fairly obviously onside to me (and just about everyone watching) made the VAR decision to uphold the offside flag all the more baffling. How did that happen? The audio recording of the “process” reveals the truth – and it’s hilarious/appalling depending on your point of view. The officials making the decision assumed they were confirming an awarded goal, not a disallowed one – making it a “perfect call” in the (possibly last, at least in a VAR context) words of the official concerned. Sometimes agreement can fall apart for entirely absurd reasons – meaning every negotiator should be conscious about being very clear when they make deals.
So, agreeing a deal – it’s not always as easy as it might sound. Some advice – be clear, hunt down and eliminate ambiguity, and where substantial differences of opinion may exist, allocate appropriate time to focus on the implementation of the deal. The devil, after all, is in the detail.