photo of Jim Clifford OBEOver the last fortnight I have come back time and time again to the question of how we reach agreement. Whether it’s a corporate deal, the funding of a new project, or an internal arrangement to enable us to get on with a project, we
 can encounter sticking points. Too often the sticking points become the issue, totally blotting out the sunshine and hope of the original shared objectives.

Shared objectives: at some level these are always at the heart of an agreement. It may be that the outcome is shared: “…this needs your expertise and our access to markets for us both to benefit.” It may be that different parties have different objectives, but they can be delivered by the same solution: “…you want to build your business around this division of mine, and I need to sell it and focus the proceeds on another area.” Finding those, noting them down and returning to them frequently are essential steps.

We can then consider our differences. What is it that appears to be getting in the way? Looking through the other party’s eyes is always helpful. Ideally that should cut both ways, and the discussion should be shared, but that may not always be possible. From that view can come understanding. Why is this an issue for one of us? Is there another solution? Could I give some ground at relatively little cost which then deals with a genuine problem for you?

I have recently seen a number of instances of what appeared to be intractable problems solved in this way. On one sale of a care home division for a client to someone new into the industry we were concerned that, if there were operational difficulties in future the buyer might not be able to resolve them, and vulnerable residents might suffer. We discussed it, and the buyer arranged with a family friend already in the industry that they would act as a safety net in such circumstances. Both parties gained. However the issue may not always be associated with the deal in itself. I have also encountered the situation where one party’s objective was, for the person leading the negotiation, to feel they had won the argument. This, perhaps bizarrely, transcended any commercial objectives. Understanding the issue, we realised this was about feeling they had won, rather than actually taking value of our table. We sought areas for them to win which neither compromised our value in the deal, nor, where we could, theirs.

Negotiating an agreement can take a while. When it does, and you feel the shadows encroaching, it is important regularly to remember how good the sunshine felt and find it again. Reminding each other regularly of the overall shared objectives will help you to do that. In building the 18-way coalition that stands behind the Adoption Bond ( we made it a shared virtue to keep reminding ourselves of why we wanted to do this. It worked.

Finding the sunshine of agreement takes effort: not solely in arguing your case, but in striving to see the shadows clouding the other parties’ eyes. It’ll be much easier if you do. Enjoy the sunshine!

Jim Clifford OBE

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