EUROPE HAS A COMMUNICATION PROBLEM. IT STARTED LONG BEFORE THE GREEK BAILOUT AND HAS BECOME A STUMBLING BLOC IN THE REFUGEE CRISIS. WHAT CAN WE LEARN FOR OUR OWN COMMUNICATION? HOW TO AVOID PITFALLS AND GET YOUR MESSAGE HEARD.
In the peak of negotiations around Greece’s potential drop-out of the Eurozone, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and his colleagues were waiting in a meeting room of the European Council Meeting, just to find out that their Greek colleagues were having an extended breakfast at their hotel. Schäuble is said to have been more than furious. Just one incident that led to a disturbed atmosphere of communication in this dire matter.
When refugees from Syria despaired at the Hungarian border and the Budapest main railway station, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban stood up in front of television to announce that this was a German problem, not a European problem. Since then, Member States are following more than ever their own agenda rather than seeking a common solution. At the expense of a solution for the people affected by their politics, European citizens and refugees alike.
Europe has a communication problem. And that communication problem fosters an atmosphere of mistrust and hurt feelings – which ultimately harms political debates. Because politics, just as much as any private relationship between two or more people, is about how you say it – more than about what you say. And that’s what this blog entry is about: how do you make your message heard?
No. 1: Put yourself into the counterpart’s shoes: what will make him or her listen?
Let’s look at that incident with the Greek delegation again. Two sided, both severely humiliated. The European finance ministers were left waiting and were angry that the Greek, who needed something from them rather than the other way around, were so bold to simply not show up on time. The Greek on the other hand, were continuously treated as bidders and stuck between a rock and a hard place. They did not have anything to offer, and they had to live up to their promises to their electorate. Both sides decided to let their feelings get the better part of their discussions.
The bottom line is: If you want your message to be heard, you need to consider how it sounds. And the situation your counterpart is in. What will make him or her listen to you?
Ever heard of game theory? It’s that nobel price winning method where you wonder what everyone in your “game” is likely to do, given their very own interests. And then you consider what is necessary for others to support you. Scolding the Greek for not complying helps European egos, but does nothing to counter the financial crisis. The same goes for dealing with Eastern European leaders refusing to participate in a European solution to the refugee crisis. Yes, feelings are hurt and discussions emotional. But everyone on the table has a constituency to deal with. Denying your negotiation partner’s interests, as unreasonable as they may seem to you, means failing to successfully delivering your message.
No. 2: Understand yourself: what are your own motives?
Only authenticity gets your message to arrive. Body language will give it away otherwise. Have you ever had the feeling that something was just not right when someone told you something – but you couldn’t pinpoint what it was? Often your feeling tells you what is behind – it’s hard to be convincing when message and personal conviction are not aligned. We are instinct-driven beings, so you will not be able to hide your true motives very well. There remains an underlying tension if you are not at ease with what you are saying.
So you need to question your own motives and develop a message you believe in yourself. If you cannot, it’s not the right message. Lobbyists call this the “red-face test”. Can you look in the mirror and tell yourself the message without getting a red face? If not, you have to rework what you want and how to argue that. What you learn in lobbying is that you first need to carve out what your client wants, and then you need to find what is beneficial about that interest for Europe. It’s not just about making it sound – it’s about considering whether that’s true or not. I’m not saying that favoritism doesn’t influence some decisions, or that being sincere always makes you succeed. But if you look at the long line of European decisions, only those with a broader benefit to more than one stakeholder group were successful. That’s the very least you will need to deliver.
No: 3: Why finding a solution that is also beneficial to your counterpart is so important
European policymaking is designed for compromise – 28 member states need to find agreement in the Council, after the European Commission – where its many Directorates and Commissioners have to find a good agreement first – has developed a proposal it hopes to see safely through Parliament.
Parliament is a special case: a German liberal party is not the same as a UK liberal party. Constituency interests, national cultures and party lines play a role when it comes to votes in the European Parliament. This leads to different coalitions on a case-by-case basis. In the majority of legislative proposals that affect you, all three institutions need to find an agreement – none of them is able to take a decision single-handedly. Every European policymaker therefore has an inbuilt “compromise compass” – what do I want as a minimum, and to what extent can I give in, or give something in return, to get it?
Christine Mahoney, a US political scientist who compared EU and US policymaking in her book “Brussels vs the Beltway”, finds that European legislation is dominated by compromise decisions where everyone loses a bit, whereas US decision-making has a “winner takes all” approach, with more absolute gains and losses.
The lesson for us: in European decision-making, seeking absolute gains is likely to result in an absolute loss, so compromise is generally the best you can achieve. There is yet another reason why seeking compromise may be better than seeking to win: it depends on whether you want to do business with that negotiation partner again or not. Absolute wins mean you disregard the interests of your negotiation partner. He or she will not forget that. So consider carefully whether you are in for a long-term relationship or a one-night stand.
No.4: What to do when your counterpart plays hardball
Well, now you know all about delivering your message in the right way, but what if your counterpart doesn’t play along? If he or she just drives you nuts, by ignoring your offer?
Reconsider if you figured your counterpart out correctly. Maybe other factors influence the decision that you have not acknowledged yet. What does your counterpart want that you are not giving? Can you give it? If not, is there a valuable alternative?
Find allies. Find others to deliver your message. Perhaps it’s not the message, but the messenger that does not work. Who does your negotiation partner listen to? Can you convince these people of your argument? Again, you will need to understand what these persons want, what and who they are likely to listen to. Be authentic and appeal to their own goals.
And finally: Be patient, try again. And again.
Want to learn how to do this better than you already do?
Or need a sparring partner along the ride in a concrete negotiation process? IMConsult offers coaching and training for individuals and for teams to sharpen your communication skills – you know what you want to say, we help you craft how to say it. Contact us to discuss which coaching format is best for you!