Bracketed Language

Published: Nov 22 , 2013
Author: Stephen White

After the failure, albeit perhaps temporarily, of the negotiations in Geneva last weekend between the Iranian Foreign Minister and representatives of the superpowers over the future of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, US Secretary of State John Kerry gave an interview to the BBC. The transcript can be found  here . My interest was drawn to this extract:

QUESTION: ……(I)sn’t it fair to say that when you arrived in Geneva on Friday there was more agreement around the draft, and that the Iranians were also more or less on board, and then the French injected some objections which then meant that the Iranians had to go back to Tehran to consult back with the capital?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, we had bracketed language. In fairness, in honesty, we had bracketed language which we arrived at. The Iranians had objections to certain parts of the language themselves which we had to work out and we had to negotiate. So there was still open negotiating beyond whatever the British or the French or the Germans or anybody else brought to the table. …

Ahh, I thought, that well known and deeply respected negotiating strategy of bracketed language. (For American readers I am being ironic). Which is what exactly??

Bracketing is a technique which is designed to make the gap between parties look smaller than before, and inject some flexibility into a situation. A typical example is where two parties are separated by a numerical difference – for example in a commercial negotiation the Buyer has demanded a 10% discount and the Seller has only offered a 2% discount. Bracketing would involve the seller making a proposal along the lines of ‘If the buyer would move to a 7% discount demand, we would move to a 4% discount offer’. So instead of the gap being 10-2=8%, the gap is now only 7-4=3%. In a bracketed proposal only one variable is dealt with; this is not the same as a multi-variable trade - for example ‘If you could increase the volume by 100 I would increase the discount to 4%’.

The idea that you signal flexibility by bracketed language has to be a two-edged sword. Of course it might encourage movement, assuming that the recipient recognizes the flexibility in the language, and co-operative and creative negotiators would see this as a good thing.

But it is also an enormous sign of weakness, of indecision, of preparedness to give way. This is not the place for a political analysis of Iranian nuclear policy, but I would suggest that Iranian behavior over many years should have led the P5+1 negotiators to recognize that giving an inch to the Iranians is always reciprocated by them  taking a mile.

I suspect that most readers with commercial negotiating experience would be deeply cynical of this technique in all but the most benign of negotiations. The most likely reasoning from a buyer who gets a proposal like this would surely be ‘Ah – so you can go to 4% discount and I haven’t offered or agreed anything – I expect you can probably go even further! So I’ll just say no and see what you do next’.

Of course it could be that John Kerry understands the meaning of bracketed language differently. Maybe he uses it as an expression for unspecific or alternative language. Even so, its existence indicates flexibility, which is not wise when dealing with negotiators who view flexibility as weakness.

Good negotiators measure the style and track-record of the counter party. Those who suggest that Iranian policy is different since the new President came to office and that these negotiations represent a real opportunity for a new order should remember that the Iranian ruling class, where the decisions are really made, has not changed at all. Which is why I believe that the use of bracketed language last weekend in Geneva was unfortunate. As it probably is most of the time.

Stephen White


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