Negotiation skills: the junior doctors’ debacle

Monday, February 15th, 2016

Brian Farrington Limited has applied negotiation skills for clients since 1978 and has worked in many complex business situations, including some for HM Government and multi-national organisations. Negotiation is a specialised skill, largely untaught in the UK. The negotiations with the Junior Doctors have broken down and this begs the question, ‘WHY?’ The Health Minister, Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP in a statement to the House of Commons on the 11 February 2016 defined negotiation as, ‘A discussion where both sides demonstrate flexibility and compromise on their original objectives.’ At a simplistic level, this is a credible definition, however, it fails to analyse the depth of complexity in such a negotiation. It also fails to acknowledge that one side or the other may not want a negotiated settlement and were going through the motions.

The worst type of negotiation is where both sides base their strategy on the application of power & coercion. That is our conclusion on the negotiation skills that were applied to the Junior Doctors’ contract. Both sides have adopted positons that were difficult to change without a massive loss of face. The BMA representing Junior Doctors used emotive words and phrases; the Minister threatened to impose a new contract if agreement wasn’t reached. Ultimately, a new contract was imposed. Relationships have inevitably broken down.

A book ‘White House Years’ written by Henry Kissinger, published by Little, Brown and Company should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in negotiation skills. One of Kissinger’s comments bears serious thought, “The superpowers often behave like two heavily armed blind men feeling their way around a room, each believing himself in mortal peril from the other whom he assumes to have perfect vision… of course, over time even two blind men in a room can do enormous damage to each other, not to speak of the room.” There is an analogy between the superpowers at work and the negotiations between the Health Minister and the BMA.

Ultimately, only negotiation skills founded on logical persuasion and genuine business objectives will reach a satisfactory conclusion. When emotion enters the negotiation arena, the stakes are dramatically increased. How will the Junior Doctors scenario play out? Who knows?

Our consultancy and training services to help you with negotiation skills are always available. If we can help please contact us on 01744 20698 for a discussion.