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The Difficulty of Learning in Public Service Negotiations

Three reasons why it is natural we do not learn from ourselves and one way to counter the tide.

I wrote earlier about peace negotiations as a low-learning system. But at the level of the individual negotiator, barriers to effective learning affect novices and the most experienced negotiators alike. There are many reasons for this. The most important one is that as a negotiator you are only partly in control of process, relationship and substance. Your counterpart matters as much as you do. In multiparty negotiation, control is the wrong term to start with; influence is better. You may use your knowledge and skills to exercise maximum influence and still achieve a bad negotiation outcome. Equally, you may commit every mistake possible and still come out with a good deal. Context, the dynamics between other parties and unforeseen events are all factors that matter.

A second reason is that we hardly ever know the true red lines of our counterparts, or the true missed opportunities to create more value together before dividing it up. In areas where we have compromised, would more creative solutions have been possible? Maybe, but we cannot rerun the past and take a different turn. Or would a different strategy have yielded more value for our side? Maybe, but our counterparts will not tell us they would have yielded more if only... The opposite if more likely. After all, the best negotiators are experts at making you feel that you have done extremely well and they have barely held on to their core interests. Remember haggling for hours over that expensive souvenir in a faraway bazaar and at first feeling great you knocked 70% of the price of that poor vendor?

A third reason, especially in government, is that success has many fathers but failure is an orphan. When we fail to get to agreement there are so many external factors at play that it is too tempting not to invoke them in analysing the collapse of talks. Often, these factors take over the narrative entirely. Our counterparts are too difficult. The process was too complex. The parties and diverging interests too many. The political context too unfavourable to get to any agreement at this moment. This external locus of control is a safe haven for any individual or team coming out of talks that have ended in stalemate.

In contrast, when we achieve unexpected agreement on a very tough issue, our instinct is to look at how we (and perhaps our coalition partners) have performed; how certain strategies paid off, how well relationships were managed, how creative thinking was used and how smart process interventions resulted in victory. This is only natural: if the mission of public service professionals is to forge agreements for the greater good, it would be awkward to assign the victories to fortitude and routinely blame ourselves for failures. In the meanwhile, we fail to learn on what we did well in talks that fail, and we fail to comprehend what we could do better in those that have succeeded.

If public service professionals are wired to not learn much, what can they do to counter the above? One simple method is to not review negotiations alone. Not to provide an analysis of results without first engaging with colleagues in the one habit that excellent negotiators use far more often than the rest: ask questions. Not by yourself but engage colleagues on digging a little deeper. Often, they are with you at the table but even if they are not, it makes sense to debrief with at least two simple questions for every time you leave the negotiation table: WW and DD. What Went Well and what would we Do Differently next time? Start with asking both questions regardless of the steep success or dismal failure that is just behind you.


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