• Stefan Szepesi

The Prevalence of Accidental Negotiators


Even in high-stakes negotiation the prevalence of inadequate preparation is more rule than exception.


Lucky to be at the table. That is me, 25 years young, having a seat in international trade negotiations. A few chairs away from me is Peter Mandelson. The European Trade Commissioner is making flattering introductory remarks about St. Lucia, our host for this round. It is ok if these talks last forever, he says, as long as they are not held in Brussels but here, a stone’s throw from the white beaches and the blue Caribbean ocean.

I sit through these Ministerial level talks mostly as a spectator. I note that in terms of substance they are less interesting than the negotiations at “principal” level, those where top civil servants from both sides lead the meetings. And these, in turn, are less content driven compared to the lowest, technical level of talks. At that level we go into the nitty gritty substance of trade agreements and I get to participate. A little, that is. After all, I have not had any training in negotiation.

Over several rounds I find out that, in fact, from junior to senior, no one on our side has had any negotiation training.

Apart from a dose of intuition European Commission officials prepare on substance. They shall not be outwitted on the intricacies of rules of origin, the structure of tariff-quotas, or the details of public procurement law in trade agreements. Whether they are effective as negotiators is not discussed. Some of my colleagues are casually described as “skillful negotiators”. Yet no one seems to know what it is that makes them stand out. Apparently this is art and not science.

A few years later my career has moved into the highly charged zone of Israel-Palestine. Again I find myself at the negotiation table, now almost daily. At the Middle East Quartet, with Tony Blair at the helm and officials from the UN, the US State Department and the EU in support, we attempt to broker economic growth and improved security. All in support of the US-led peace talks headed by George Mitchell. We sit across army generals, ministers, business chiefs and bureaucrats, negotiating issues from inches of freedom of movement at checkpoints to hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign direct investment.

Again, none of the high-flying diplomats in our team is trained in negotiation. Because aren’t diplomats by definition endowed with this higher art?

We prepare thoroughly and single-mindedly on the substance of our agenda before we meet with counterparts for whom diplomacy is the continuation of war by other means. Lack of progress? Collapsed peace process? We blame the ever-deteriorating political context. After all, we had all the right arguments…

Over three decades have passed since academics and the business community started to take the field of negotiation seriously. As Howard Raiffa wrote long ago, negotiation is art and science. This means a large part of it can be learned through training and enhanced awareness. Most civil servants have yet to catch up.

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