Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Politics and negotiation

What are the essential skills politicians need? I think there are three:
  •  Expectation engineering
  •  Commitment engineering
  •  Negotiation
Expectation engineering means to shape people’s expectations: about what will happen if things continue the way they are, what happens when other parties have their way, what happens when your party will have its way, what happens if you get your way. Expectation engineering easily degenerates into general statements that play to hopes and fears of people, unhampered by pertinent knowledge and practical wisdom.
Commitment engineering means to build alliances, to build support, to build a reputation for honesty, fairness and reliability, to stand your ground to the extent it is practically possible.
Negotiation depends on the personal qualities and personal reputation of the negotiators and of the knowledge that they truly represent the views and the interests of their constituencies. And on their ability to judge the position of their opponents, their views, their interests, the pressures they are under. The best negotiators are reasonable and humane, but skeptical and perceptive, with sound judgment. The worst negotiators are missionaries, fanatics and advocates, especially if they are unsure of their own constituencies. This makes new, inexperienced amateurs unreliable. They want to score too badly. The most common vice of negotiators, both experienced and inexperienced is vanity. Vanity breeds indiscretion and tactlessness.
The ideal negotiator is truthful, precise, composed, patient, modest and loyal.

In the Netherlands, we just had an election that forces the two big winners, centre-right and centre-left, to form a coalition government. From day one, the press is lamenting back-room politics, meaning they don’t know exactly what’s going on. But negotiation is essentially a back-room activity. All publicity during the negotiation phase is to influence what is happening in the back-room. Usually, it’s more to satisfy their own constituencies, then to influence the other party, even if it seems that the public utterances are directed to the other party.

The best possible outcome of a negotiation is when each party get gains that don’t cost too much to the other party. And where that is impossible, that compromises are fair - and workable. A lot of expectation engineering is necessary to make the commitment engineering work, both inside and outside the negotiation ‘back-room.’

The essential difficulty is that expectations are necessarily shaky in fields like economics as  the dynamics are so complex and turbulent that the relationship between causes and effects is never clear-cut. Political decisions are a boulevard of broken dreams.
This seems one of the major reasons that politics becomes personalized. The more the destination is controversial, the more all routes to all destinations are insecure, the more trust in the captain is what counts. The media enlarge this, they don’t create this.

Politicians are no supermen and supergirls. Those that present themselves as such, should not be trusted. We should not imagine them to be that. I remember the lead caption of a Brazilian newspaper, right after the end of the military rule, when the country was suffering all the turmoils of a return to democracy: A COUNTRY THAT NEEDS A MESSIAH, DOESN’T DESERVE ONE. Amen to that.

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