About the only thing that we seem able to agree about the Brexit negotiations is that they aren't going well. This should hardly be surprising given that we can't agree what sort of outcome we want even leaving aside the question of whether it is attainable. But what does surprise me about all this commentary on negotiation problems is that no-one is asking the opposite question: what would the Brexit negotiations look like if they were going well?

I don't want to fall into the trap of expressing an opinion about one Brexit or Remain option or another, as there are more than enough of those flying around already, but maybe if we can hypothesise a set of negotiations which are going well we might be able to do some reverse-engineering to work out how we could get to that state.

So what might we expect to be seeing if the negotiations of the past eighteen months had gone well?  Here's my list for starters:

1. The great British public would not know everything that was going on...

Negotiating under the white hot glare of the public eye is rarely the best way to go about things, particularly in situations where everyone has an opinion. Take, for example, the Oslo peace process of 25 years ago which was built on a carefully protected series of highly confidential, behind the scenes, meetings that were only made public once real progress had been achieved.  This secrecy created a safe negotiation space in which relationships could be carefully built and hypothetical solutions explored away from public scrutiny 

2. But there would be more positive messaging of progress...

As we are seeing all too clearly, the negotiator's challenge is not just to persuade the team on the other side of the table but also to watch their own backs.  This requires careful news management - keeping the home team on board means feeding them a steady diet of news about positive progress. 

3. And discussion about the challenges for problem-solving is allowed...

There's nothing wrong in telling people about the problems that still have to be resolved, but this should be done in a way which promotes understanding (and maybe inviting suggestions for solutions) rather than simply blaming the other side. 

4. Leading to greater clarity about objectives and key interests

Rather than reiterating what we don't want, the public debate would focus on what is truly important to us - and if we're smart we'd also think about what is truly important to the other team as well. Because, whilst the search for compromise might be tempting, it may be more realistic not to seek to change minds but rather to establish areas of mutual self-interest.

5. ..and all this comes about through proper process management

For it's process management which makes all of these things possible. In the commercial world we are now well used to working with a professionally trained mediator who can guide our negotiations, so surely there is a space for a process management expert to oversee the Brexit talks?  Or even better, a team of experts, some linked to each negotiating team and others holding the ring and moving the process forward in an organised manner. If such people were engaged in the process, I for one would have rather more faith that the present shambles would be likely to get us somewhere.       

But sadly "shambles" isn't my word - it's how a senior politician described the process to me when I suggested the Oslo model might prove more fruitful. 


Graham Massie is a member of CEDR Chambers, a panel of highly experienced mediators with proven excellence in providing mediation, training and consultancy services to clients. 

To book Graham as a mediator, contact the CEDR Commercial Team at adr@cedr.com or call 020 7536 6060.