The disconnect between the art of negotiation and the language of Brexit

Negotiators taking slices of the pie

Teenager or tank, mouse or leader, compromise or concession? Reflecting on the theory and the art of negotiation and the language of Brexit: exploring the inevitable disconnect.

This article represents the author’s personal views and makes no argument for either ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ or support of ‘deal’ or ‘no-deal’ other than by reference to informed good negotiation practice!

I have been teaching and then facilitating intensive three-day practical art of negotiations skills sessions and workshops respectively with many hundreds of energetic, bright and ambitious aspiring University of Manchester MBA graduates from around the globe for over seven years. This was preceded by a significant practical experience of public leadership and negotiation as a UK senior police officer and senior civil servant in the UK Home Office. Negotiation was undertaken in diverse roles. This included hostage/firearms/public order/football and major command incidents, public/community leadership, and developing economic and social partnerships in UK counties in tackling community wellbeing and society’s intractable (so-called wicked) problems. I taught/facilitated together with my associate colleagues. They have been doing this for even longer drawing on their equally extensive experience of negotiation in the retail sector and legal litigation, respectively. My professional and academic interest is firmly rooted in public leadership. Still, one thing that I have learnt – as with leadership – is that negotiation skills are generic irrespective of the sector that one applies these skills within. I also view the roles of leader and negotiator as two sides of the same coin. You cannot be one without the other, and the skills of both are complementary and essential to each. The glue that binds all is empathy in the understanding of peoples needs and interests. We are merely the stewards or guardians of the wider population and serve our people.

I have never failed to be inspired by the commitment and enthusiasm of the many hundreds of aspiring MBA graduates that I have had the pleasure of working with over the last few years. My colleagues and I learn as much from them as they do from us. As we always have an excellent cross-cultural mix the ‘B’ word (as I referred to it) – Brexit – has often emerged in the last four years as a question in terms of the ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ of poor, suitable through to great or even genius negotiators. As an ever-moving beast, I avoided it, but often reflected on it at different negotiation points. Some of the case studies that we use incorporate examples of everything that we tell our aspiring negotiators not to do. Brexit is no exception to this, and a personal reflection at this time of an agreed deal (on Christmas Eve 2020) seems appropriate as the popular press refers to this as a “landmark moment in the last four years of Brexit high drama” (Pierce, 2020). The term landmark describes historical significance as marking a period or turning point. The more discerning – politicians and press alike – view the prospects with more objectivism than the subjective view as an influential, ground-breaking and innovative outcome. As the agreement document of some 1,500 pages continues to sit on Boris Johnson’s desk as he takes a bit of a break over the remaining festive period, we cannot comment on the detail. However, we can speculate on some of the consequences, both positive and negative, that are likely to emerge. Politicians in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have already done this alongside President Macron who has taken “a final swipe at the UK … gloating that EU firmness has paid off” (Withers, 2020). A former cabinet office secretary and the UK fishing industry are already taking swipes at the Prime Minister for threatening long-term damage. An interesting discourse is going to take place!

I aim to continue to write and post about the consequences of this fresh Brexit agreement between the UK and the EU. I want to encourage ongoing debate as the early months of the agreement roll on through 2021. We can look at went well and what did not go so well and what lessons can be learned for negotiators and leaders alike.

From compromise and concession to conflict?

As we approach the 1 January 2021, with a supposed ‘deal on the table’ it seems particularly relevant to reflect on the deal as it emerges. Irrespective of whether you supported ‘remain’ or ‘leave’ and whether your perspective is the UK, European or outside of Europe/UK, I cannot resist reflecting on the last four and a half years of experience of listening to the language of Brexit. Whether it is about the difference between ‘compromise’ or ‘concession’, ‘positions’ or ‘interests’, a ‘deal’ or the ‘Best Alternative (to a) Negotiated Agreement’ (aka as ‘BATNA’), and the respective zones of possible agreement (ZOPA) there are lessons. Based on the potential range of offers on the table in line with identified interests, what is clear is that there has been little reflection on how the practice of Brexit negotiations reflect on the excellent practice that negotiation theory, models and practical case studies offer. The apparent aim was to seize as many slices of the pie as possible for each side without looking at making the pie much bigger. Fishing represents less than one per cent of UK GDP but clearly dominated the discussions as we headed towards the penalty shoot-out of ‘deal versus no deal’. The UK fish industry appears to have been sacrificed and thrown overboard to secure a Christmas deal and Macron is promoting the fact that he has secured a positive outcome in preparation for his 2021 quest for reelection (clearly a personal interest which could not have been missed when Frost et. al. were preparing for the final round).

The ‘what’ of negotiation is to reach an agreement in which each key party gains a mutual benefit whereas the ‘why’ question (aka ‘the art of negotiation’) – that we impart to our budding negotiators – is the art of letting them have your way! Provocative but realistic if you think about it. We communicate two key messages to our students from the outset. The first is the all-important ‘how’ question; never, ever, compromise and the second that a ‘no deal’ is better than a bad or contrived deal. Our students undertake role-play negotiations based on well written and applied negotiation case studies. They have thirty minutes to seek a deal at the negotiation table, after completing their detailed preparation and tactical plans. We tell them that we do not assess them on coming to a deal. They are evaluated on the process of coming to a deal or otherwise. The process is the most important. I will return to this but let us briefly consider the language of Brexit in alignment with the language of good negotiation.

We have had four years of the debate using the language of ‘compromise’ in the Brexit negotiations. Our first rule of negotiation, ‘Never, ever, compromise; ever’ has been routinely breached. Although provocative or even counterintuitive, it is a statement that we defend vigorously. Whenever politicians, advisors or lead negotiators within the Brexit arena talk of negotiation, compromise is always used. In one report of a Brexit meeting, reported on UK TV News two years ago, I counted the use of the term compromise twenty-two times in a report which lasted no more than five minutes (once every 14 to 16 seconds).

Some may consider the delineation of negotiation and compromise as one of ‘splitting hairs’ as, in many cultures, compromise is the norm. This demarcation is, however, essential. Others may argue that this is just semantics, but not to the term often applied, which suggests triviality. It is more reflective of semantics’ variance concerning its inclusiveness. Semantics also assists in exploring the meaning of the word being considered – in our case – compromise. In this particular discourse, McCarthy and Hay, for example, include compromise within the definition of negotiation but with an important caveat, defining negotiation as:

the voluntary and systematic exploration of both parties’ interests, with the objective of agreeing on a mutually acceptable compromise that resolves the conflict (Mccarthy and Hay, 2015).

The caveat is to mutually agree to a compromise within the context of conflict or potential conflict. Thus, it is an informed and preferably an evidence-based choice rather than one that is foisted on the negotiator as pressure to agree on a deal. It is not about compromise in its own right; compromise may be informed by mutual concessions which, unlike persuasion, “takes divergent preferences as given and aims at accommodation among them rather than at convergence” (Coleman, 2011). A good point is made by Flitton, who argues that we mistakenly conflate negotiation with compromise. He qualifies this by arguing that too many people think that a fair “win-win” means splitting the difference or meeting in the middle (Flitton, 2019). Voss, a former FBI international negotiator, reinforces the argument on splitting the difference (the title of his excellent book; I wished that I had access to it when I was leading hostage negotiations!). Voss argues that compromise can feel like defeat (Voss and Raz, 2016: 74), potentially leaving much on the table (ibid: 84). Voss’s main advice is “Don’t compromise” (ibid: 113) in that compromise often results in a bad deal (and, in his (and other hostage negotiation) operational cases, tragic consequences).

Etymologically, the meaning of ‘compromise’ is the “expedient acceptance of standards that are lower than is desirable”[1] or which represents the “adjustment for practical purposes of rival courses of action, systems, or theories, conflicting opinions or principles, by the sacrifice or surrender of a part of each[2].” Interestingly, its French origin relates to the putting in peril or hazard, endangering, exposing to risk or suspicion[3] (of a negotiating issue). The practical example that I offer to students is feeling your hair standing on end at the back of your neck with sweaty palms; your team starts to provide something or respond affirmatively to a suggestion that feels as if it is compromising your values. Unless you know the consequences of this, both positive and negative, avoid compromising at all costs if you cannot make an informed choice. If you are a leader, encourage constructive dissent rather than destructive consent so that a climate of fear does not get in the way of good and practical solutions.

Effective negotiation is not about compromising but about utilising the most appropriate negotiation approach in a given negotiation process to reach a mutually desired result. Integrated negotiation involves identifying the negotiation parties’ underlying interests to create value for all parties rather than promoting a position based on personal or corporate self-interests in claiming value. In the art of negotiation, two predominant styles epitomise either the creation or the claiming of value, respectively, integrative negotiation (with a focus on collaboration) versus distributive negotiation (focusing on competition). In other words, integrative negotiation seeks to make the pie bigger so that each party gets a bigger slice. In contrast, distributive negotiators will seek to take as many of the pieces of the pie as they can get their hands on but without increasing the size.

Compromise is, therefore, more about a series of informed concessions in seeking to create value rather than claim (or snatch) value in taking as much as you can or (as in the case of Brexit, as quickly as you can). Compromises thus become informed and collective concessions. Given that compromise is an expedient acceptance of lower than desirable standards, a compromise should always be an informed (evidence-based) choice achieving a reduction in the gaps in information between the respective parties. Reducing information asymmetry is supported by qualified sharing of knowledge followed by identifying strategic and tactical approaches to reach mutual acceptance of multiple offers by building trust. Some of these offers will benefit one party whereas others will be of more use to the counterparty but where both or all parties achieve a sense of increased value that would otherwise have been not possible through a no-deal. The pie is made bigger.

Compromise is thus about settling differences by mutual concession in partial fulfilment of a potential agreement (not so much demands). A concession is also a gesture or token of respect granted to something acknowledging its importance or influence[4]. It may be an informed choice on the path to an evidence-based series of concessions and trade-offs.

To teenagers, tanks, mice and leaders

At the heart of all negotiations are the negotiators; they are people, and people need to engage in relationships to achieve their desired outcomes. Another critical lesson that we promote with our students is the importance of preparation. A first key stage is the team’s selection to reflect the parameters and challenges of the negotiation. Brexit is no exception, and the teams have changed during the last four years. The negotiations’ dynamics have been no less combative than the debates thirty and forty years ago concerning the single currency and our entry into Europe respectively. As I continue to reflect and comment on the Brexit agreement, we can consider the roles that key individuals in the Brexit negotiations took. We can examine the impact, from both the UK and the EU perspective (with some gentle and some hammer-thrusting interference from some world leaders outside of the region).

At this stage, let us briefly consider Lord David Frost (affectionately (and perhaps illustratively) referred to by Boris Johnson as “Frosty” as his chief negotiator. His background as a ‘diplomat’ is unquestioned, as is Barnier the more recent EU chief negotiating counterparty. Frost’s language is also of significant interest.

As Pierce reports in the popular press, “Early on (Frost) devised a ‘four-box grid’ to describe negotiating styles: Teenager, Tank, Mouse and Leader. Frost said the EU inclined to the first two, while the UK had been the Mouse under Theresa May (Pierce, 2020). The report continued:

Elephant in the Room
According to one of the team, “he (Frost) reminded us we had to be the Leader in the room… we were told to be polite but robust” … or, I would suggest for this article, could it have been the ‘Elephant in the room’; major problems or controversial issues which are obviously present but avoided?

One of the techniques that we use with our students is to consider how to deal with conflict, understandably one of the critical skills needed by negotiators. This goes beyond just dealing with difficult conversations. I was most interested (and indeed, bemused) by this latest reference to what academics see as part of the lifeblood of research and lecturing – two-by-two matrices. I have never come across this one of Lord Frost, and I would be keen to learn what the two-by-two dimensions were that led him to his conclusion on the EU and the UK’s placement within this matrix. I am very familiar with the Thomas Kilmann Inventory (TKI), which measures conflict styles based on a two-by-two of competing versus collaborating and avoiding versus accommodating with ‘compromising’ acting almost as a mediator in the centre. The TKI also has its limits, and it still highlights challenges of compromise, but at least its utility is much clearer than that of Lord Frost’s.

My initial thought is that part of his thinking reflects the classic work of John Steinbeck, “Of Mice and Men”, which illustrated the challenges of the social and political situations in the US during the great depression and how migrant workers were treated. I hope to explore this further over the next few months, but an important point that I wish to conclude this initial article with is powerfully made by Steinbeck in his journals. It is what we would today call empathy (to comprehend and share the feelings of another) [5], a style of leadership and negotiation that I will refer to in subsequent articles and posts.

In his journal entry of 1938 Steinbeck said:

“Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other”
(Shillinglaw, 1993: xvi)

Steinbeck’s intentions were undoubtedly honourable in terms of how his role – as a writer – is not to judge – but to understand (Popova, nd.). What about the intentions of Lord Frost? If Steinbeck inspires him from the classics, then he has substituted ‘men’ for ‘leader’, but the source of his evaluative dimensions are absent and would be most interesting. To be a leader is a most credible aim, particularly in national statesmanship, but the leadership style is just as crucial as negotiation style. The integrative, collaborative leadership and negotiation style is most likely to achieve the mutual benefit of negotiation outcomes. Only time and further analysis of the negotiation process and the consequences of its outcomes will tell us what style was dominant. That process is now likely to come under intense scrutiny as the “yes” deal emerge.

Finally, was the advice that we give to our students regarding their negotiation skills to evaluate the process rather than the outcome reflected in Brexit negotiations? In partial answer to this we can further ask; “to what extent did Boris Johnson’s final motivating words to “Frosty” on Christmas Eve 2020 encourage an integrated (collaborative) final round of negotiating as opposed to the distributive (grab all that we can) process?

“Do the deal, Frosty!”
(Pierce, 2020)


[1] (

[2] “compromise, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2020. Web. 27 December 2020, sense 5.

[3]  “compromise, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2019. Web. 25 May 2019, sense 6.

[4] “concession, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2019. Web. 25 May 2019.

[5] “empathize, v.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2020. Web. 27 December 2020.


Coleman, K. P. (2011) Locating norm diplomacy: Venue change in international norm negotiations. European Journal of International Relations, 19(1), 163-186.

Flitton, R. (2019) What is the difference between negotiation and compromise? [Online]. Available: [Accessed 13 March 2019].

Mccarthy, A. & Hay, S. (2015) Advanced Negotiation Techniques [Online]. Berkeley, CA: Apress : Imprint: Apress.  [Accessed.

Pierce, Andrew. (2020) Do the deal, Frosty! How Boris Johnson gleefully ordered Brexit negotiator David Frost to sign Christmas Eve agreement with the EU – delivering a gift to the nation. Daily Mail, 25 December.

Popova, M. (nd.) The Only Story in the World: John Steinbeck on Kindness, Good and Evil, the Wellspring of Good Writing.

Shillinglaw, S. (1993) Introduction. In: Steinbeck, J. (ed.) Of Mice and Men. London: Penguin Books.

Voss, C. A. & Raz, T. A. (2016) Never split the difference : negotiating as if your life depended on it.

Withers, Paul. (2020) Gloating Emmanuel Macron can’t resist Brexit deal swipe at UK – ‘Firmness has paid off’. Express Newspapers, 24 December.

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