5 Approaches to generate movement in negotiations

A lesson for Mr Cameron and other would-be negotiators

The return of UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, from the European Council in Brussels empty-handed, raises serious questions about his competency as a negotiator. British diplomat, and former Downing Street Chief of Staff under Tony Blair, Jonathan Powell, appearing on BBC’s Newsnight, accused Cameron of either incompetence or deliberately going for failure.  The Economist reports the assessment of “a well-placed source” who was certain that [failure]was not Mr Cameron’s goal.

So here is a lesson for Mr Cameron and, with a little interpretation by the reader, a lesson for other would-be negotiators.

Judging by the PM’s statement on the European Council the negotiating plan was transparent and one-dimensional, relying on a take-it-or-leave-it bargaining position… on the assumption that the EU would trade a financial services’ safeguard for the UK’s signature. The reality, I am sure, is more complex, but, as the BBC reports, it is clear that the preparation was inadequate, ignoring some of the most basic rules of negotiation.

There are 5 approaches to generate movement in a negotiation. They are, in order of power:

  • Emotion
  • Logic
  • Threat
  • Bargaining
  • Compromise

So let us examine how Cameron and his aides used these approaches.


From the outset, the emotional cards were stacked against Cameron. The Treaty proposals were agreed by German Chancellor, Angela Merkel and France’s president, Nicholas Sarkozy. There are no emotional ties between Cameron and Merkel, and no reports, in this negotiation, of any preparation by Britain to make a connection. Sarkozy, in the run up to elections, was never likely to accept any compromise given the anti-British sentiment in France – the feeling that the UK was a cause of the financial crisis – and denial that the euro is in deep crisis.


Britain’s “financial protocol” was passed to the European Commission too late to engage other members who, with prior logical analysis, could have been persuaded to provide support. I wonder, did Britain have logical answers to the inevitable question from France, Germany and other states, “What’s in it for us?”


Cameron put the threat of a walk-away in the public domain before leaving for Brussels. Skilled negotiators rarely make overt threats as they may well cause resentment. Much better to use veiled or mirrored threats – for your opponent to infer the consequences rather than be told.


Cameron revealed his bottom line together with his threat. Bargaining is to be deployed after using emotion and logic (and some subtle threats)  to gain straight concessions. It pays not to put markers down; bargaining positions are best revealed late in the game. 


Finally we have the compromise. It rarely makes for a successful negotiation to go in with the final offer. It helps, when pressed,  to have built in room to compromise. Compromise always comes last.

Former UK Liberal Democrat Leader, Paddy Ashdown, also on Newsnight, made two telling comments. Firstly, “We [the Lib Dems and Conservatives] put together a together a joint negotiating ‘deal’ [later restated as ‘position’] which David Cameron didn’t deliver.” The inference is that there were some options Cameron did not table. Perhaps he did his own thing, deviating from the negotiation plan. Secondly, “Any other Prime Minister would have come back with a deal.”

It would seem that several respected (if perhaps biased) observers concluded that the PM is in need of some lessons.

I’ll leave the negotiation planning for a future article…. Here endeth the first lesson!


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