The bewildering array of strike action that’s been gathering momentum across sectors over the last year or more has – until now – been characterised by a morbid sense of deadlock. The flexibility that allows us to make deals – and without which we cannot – has been lacking on both sides of the table, and if anything the language used by all parties has tended towards a hardening of position. Most of us would see this as making the resolution of the conflicts less likely, and rightly so.
Very recently however, a BBC Journalist (Chris Mason) was told by one of his senior government sources that “we won’t be putting limitations on these (ie upcoming) talks”. In other words, nothing is off the table. This statement – if it is in fact representative of the government position – is a shift, both in tone and in fact. It’s what we call a signal – a move, however subtle or indirect, from the absolute to the qualified. And skilled negotiators know that signals are absolute gold, nuggets of flexibility to be sought out and prized. This is particularly the case when the negotiation is a long and hard road.
What to do if you recognise a signal in your own negotiations? First of all, be alert to the reality that it’s only a clue that may – or may not – indicate flexibility. Probe, question and confirm. If it does mean that the other party has decided to modify its previous position, that’s good news for you – so it’s crucial that you reward this flexibility and build upon it. This may be with a potential signal of flexibility on your part, or something else appropriate to the movement being implied.
The Royal College of Nursing has responded to the government’s signal with one of their own – deciding to suspend the next planned strike action. It’s a good example of rewarding a signal as there’s no commitment on their part to stop their action in future, but it does send a positive message back to the government (and of course, other unions). It will be fascinating to see how those other unions respond themselves. The corollary to our advice that signals of flexibility should be rewarded is, of course, that it’s a high-risk approach to punish them. In this case that might be to point out the inconsistency in the position, the time it’s taken to move, and so on. The probability is that the only outcome achieved there is to make the flexibility on offer vanish and see it replaced with further intransigence. Whether any unions take this approach remains to be seen – I had a train of thought as to which union may punish this particular signal, but I thought I’d shunt it into the sidings. I’m not so good at predictions.
However you feel about the current series of strike actions, observing what’s happening as dispassionately as you can will offer you some valuable insights into your own negotiations, and how you can improve your own outcomes, no matter how different the context may be.