Three word slogans: Labour isn’t working. Britain deserves better. Education, education, education. Take back control. Get Brexit done. Stop the boats. I hate them. With a passion. Such meaningless drivel! Distilled to pointlessness. Why so popular?
Numerous treatises will have been composed on the effectiveness of these fun-sized manifestos down the years, but the aim of all of those cursed phrases? To influence, to persuade, to drive a point of view that will lead to a desired action (in all of the above cases of course, that desired action being a vote for one or other political party). Persuasion of course is only one means by which we try and get what we want – there are other options. In politics some of them carry risk. Imposing your will generally looks a bit off in a democracy, although the flirtation with Erdogan/Orban style “strong man” decision-making has become something of a thing for politicians around the world, even where they are subject to the whims of the electorate. Postponement is a frequent visitor to many corridors of power, as the costs of those lovely promises made become clearer and the long grass over there looks like a far better place for various policies. Giving in – whilst politically sometimes the most sensible option – does tend to attract the wrong kind of attention as accusations of U-Turns fly. Problem-solving – arguably the primary function of a political executive – appears to have all but gone extinct, with cross-party (or bi-partisan) initiatives looking deeply unfashionable in the face of the culture wars. Similarly, negotiation falls into this political classification – nobody seems keen to do the giving in order to get bit, which of course underpins the trading that defines negotiation. We only have to look at the confused manner in which the US recently avoided debt default to see how afraid politicians are of negotiating, even where it’s clearly in their own – and everybody else’s – interests.
So we’re back with selling or persuading to get what we want, at least politically. And in the same way that it doesn’t help outcomes a great deal in policy terms, persuasion can be a dangerous enemy to the negotiator. Most of us will be familiar with the desire to come out on top of an argument – it’s human nature, after all. But one of my favourite things about negotiation is that it frees us from the obligation to insist the other party agrees with our point of view. Removing these shackles is liberating – I no longer need to prove my point or wear down my opponent with three word slogans. Instead, I can focus on more valuable things such as listening to them, understanding their objectives and asking under what circumstances might a workable deal be realised between us. If I can then trade towards that, I can be entirely comfortable with the fact that they may fundamentally disagree with my position – if there’s enough value in the deal for the both of us, that’s by the by. Recognising the point at which persuasion ceases to be effective and starts to become counter-productive is a vital skill for any negotiator to hone. Which brings us back to the ceaseless Punch-and-Judy show we see in many political arenas, where winning the argument is all. The limits of persuasion are routinely ignored and at a cost to all of us, in my view.
So, for negotiators. The best part? No more slogans. They mostly divide. Harm our interests. Increase mutual antagonism. Try listening, instead.