How to negotiate: Don't be an irritant

The public sector pension strike has come and gone. Over 6,000 schools were closed and a further 5,000 partially closed, while other public services, including transport, were disrupted. As talks continue the chances of more collective action is possible.

Generally, in this kind of situation the parties remain tight-lipped about what is said across the negotiating table and we have to guess what is happening from the statements that are made outside of negotiations, statements that nonetheless give some indication of how the parties are dealing with each other behind closed doors.

During behavioural research on negotiators, Huthwaite International researchers discovered a behaviour which is frequently used by average negotiators but generally avoided by skilled negotiators. The researchers called these behaviours 'Irritators' and found that they were counterproductive to effective negotiations.

'Irritators' are defined as 'words or phrases which have the potential to irritate through self-praise or condescension and which lack any persuasive function'.

Typical irritators are 'fair', 'reasonable' and 'generous'.  A negotiator who tells the other side what is good for them is using Irritator behaviour. If I describe my offer as 'fair' I am saying that the other side is unfair by not acknowledging and accepting this. If I say that I am being 'generous' I am telling the other side that they should be grateful for what I have put on the table.

These words may seem inconsequential but, in the context of heated exchanges, they can have far-reaching effects.

Huthwaite findings on the use of Irritators revealed that average negotiators are five times more likely to use irritator behaviour than skilled ones.  Bearing in mind that the 'average' negotiators observed by Huthwaite were all experienced negotiators, the differential between the 'skilled' group and inexperienced negotiators would probably be even greater.

Classic Irritators were uttered by then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott during the 2002 UK firemen's strike.  "We have bent over backwards to be fair and reasonable," Prescott said, a statement that had no persuasive effect at all and probably contributed to the ill feelings generated by the dispute. To make sure that his message was driven home, Prescott added: "We have been met with action that is wrong and unjustified and puts lives at risk."

This brings us back to the current public sector dispute. A week before the 30 June strike, Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, spoke to the BBC. In the course of an interview lasting a little over three minutes Mr Alexander claimed that what was in dispute was '"the best (pension) system in the market". He described the government offer as: "fair and balanced", "generous", "reasonable" and claimed that the offer "should be reassuring".

Huthwaite research concluded that skilled negotiators uttered 2.3 Irritators per hour and average negotiators 10.8 per hour. You can do the maths on Mr Alexander but he has certainly broken Mr Prescott's 2002 record. Furthermore, if he is speaking that way in public, where we must assume that he is being guarded, what is he saying at the negotiating table, away from the media glare?

So, what should he be saying at the negotiating table? For a start he should be telling less and asking more. By asking questions he will get a sense of what the other side is looking for, not just the 'demands' that are on the table. The more he understands their needs, their fears and aspirations, the more he will be able to frame proposals that can go some way to meeting their needs.

But, above all, he should avoid telling them what is good for them.

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