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Where were you?

Stephen White

Just as they say that everyone remembers what they were doing when they heard that JFK had been assassinated, the same applies to 9/11. In my case I was in a Dixons electrical shop; I watched the second plane fly into the building on a wall of about 50 TVs which were on display for sale, all showing the identical picture. I commented on the devastating nature of the spectacle to the sales assistant who was completing my purchase. ‘It’s just TV’ he said, not recognizing that the event was real.

The result of that attack, the War on Terror and the subsequent events in Afghanistan and Iraq, continue to affect our daily lives.

Five weeks ago a passenger plane was shot out of the sky by separatists in Ukraine, and nearly 300 people were killed. Not only can I not remember what I was doing at the time, but my amnesia seems to be shared by most of the world. The event has disappeared from the media. Criticism of Russia, which was involved either directly or by association, is non-existent. The UN appears not to have the incident in their sights. It is almost as if it never happened.

Last week the video of a jihadist apparently beheading journalist James Foley was thankfully kept off our TV screens. Undoubtedly there was moral outrage in the UK and the rest of the Western world, but this was not so much about the barbarity of the act than on the fact that the perpetrator appeared to be English.

We have become desensitized, less affected by the most recent horror as a result of the previous traumas we have experienced. This effect causes ever more extreme behavior from the perpetrators in order to ensure that their desired output – shock horror – is achieved. Three months ago we were appalled when Boko Haram kidnapped 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria. Now we see Islamic State murdering hundreds of Yazidis, and Christians. How much further will they feel they need to go to get their message across?

In my opinion the response of the world is peculiar to say the least – however severe the terrorist tactics, public opinion is that the antidote should be diplomacy rather than retaliation – to open talks and find a solution rather than to stand up to the bully.

Desensitization affects our negotiating lives as well. There has always been bad behavior by some negotiators – cheating, fraud, failing to disclose pertinent information, bullying, and so on. I am not suggesting that one can compare the brutality of war with any parallel in the commercial world, but increasingly extreme negotiating tactics do seem to be the order of the day, and for the same reason – because negotiating partners have become desensitized to previous more moderate behavior, so more desperate tactics have to be used.

A recent example from our consultancy casebook that I would have considered outrageous 10 years ago now seems normal. Our client’s client had been a significant purchaser and as a result our client had given them a 20% discount in return for the volume offered. They then proposed that the volume for 2015 would halve because of budget constraints but demanded not only the existing discount but an additional 30% off list price. No explanation or reason was given; no indication that there was any flexibility in their demand, instead they threatened delisting and other dire consequences if our client refused.

Again, our client felt that the right response was diplomatic - to ask for a meeting and to use persuasion and compromise skills to change their client’s perception of what represented reasonable behavior. We disagreed, and advised that they should clearly advise that they would not engage with their client at all until the threat is off the table and more reasonable behavior prevailed. This they have done, and we wait to see the reaction.

The message we learn from the macro-environment is simple. If our response to bad behavior is wishy-washy and fatigued we teach the other side to become increasingly badly behaved. There are times when a more resolute and robust attitude is better.

Stephen White

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