Dialogue and negotiation

In the affairs of every individual, corporation, or country, the two concepts of dialogue and negotiation play a key role in ensuring progress and betterment at various levels of their existence. Dialogue as an interchange of ideas without the pressure of commitment is a very important first step towards the more demanding process of negotiation. Although negotiation is a form of dialogue, the reverse is not true, despite there being many people who see dialogue as a form of negotiation and tend to use the terms interchangeably.

Negotiation can be described as a journey of discussion between two parties that seeks to arrive at a destination of mutual agreement between the parties. Thus the important difference between the two terms is that dialogue is simply an exchange of information, ideas and viewpoints between and among the participants, but without requiring any specific commitment to be made as a consequence of the discussion. Negotiation, on the other hand, seeks to arrive at a consensus, and a successful negotiation demands that consensus be achieved.

Consultation is a popular form of dialogue, particularly between governments and other parties, such as investors or other stakeholders on a particular matter. These types of consultations can involve a nearly one-sided presentation as one party, in this example the government, seeks to benefit from the expertise of another party regarding a particular matter in order to guide plans, strategy and action.

Needless to say, adroitness at these types of communication and deal-making methodologies are rarely ever innately acquired, or casually obtained skills. Instead, the best presenters and negotiators are usually well trained, experienced, and with the capacity to absorb and present large quantities of detailed information regarding specific matters requiring specialist treatment.

Such professionals often have the ability to consider or analyse the impact assessments of large-scale projects, whose obvious positive benefits can blind decision-makers to the possible hidden and negative side effects of a project, whether direct or indirect.

Decision-makers in government are therefore usually well advised to surround themselves with professionals who are adept in the skills of dialogue and negotiation – which presupposes that such professionals are knowledgeable in a particular subject area, have good conflict management skills, have good emotional control, are ethical and able to spot underhand practices while being immune to the lure of ‘filthy lucre’.

It has become par for the course that once appointed to high positions in government, some persons make the false assumption that they have somehow been automatically invested with not just the authority to handle dialogue and negotiations, but also the skill set to lead such communications successfully without any previous experience. But when dealing with large corporations and multi-national entities, inexperienced negotiators and presenters often find themselves overwhelmed not only by the large quantities of detailed information that are usually presented, but also by the sophistication of their counterparts across the table. These kinds of lopsided dialogues usually lead to lopsided negotiations and in the end agreements that are neither fair nor ethical, with fallout that can consume all the parties.

The ExxonMobil deal with the Government of Guyana is the obvious example of government functionaries inadequately prepared for dialogue and negotiation with their counterparts across the table. Whether this is a result of a high degree of inexperience, possibly even mixed with some measure of hauteur and topped off with a misplaced sense of the need for secrecy, is hard to tell, but Guyana does appear to see nothing wrong with presenting inexperienced and unprepared teams to meet with quite professional dialogue and negotiating teams from corporations or other governments.

Recently the Ministry of Health through the Department for Public Information reported that “The wealthy German industrial conglomerate Siemens is pushing for a stake in the local public health sector” while the Guyana Chronicle led with “Siemens, a German conglomerate company, has signalled its intent to invest in the local public health sector.” If one gets a sense of fait accompli after reading about what must have been only an initial dialogue whereby Siemens communicated a business interest in Guyana, then we must question our readiness to have these types of communications with multinational companies in particular. Technicians, however knowledgeable, are neither automatic negotiators nor closers unless they have added these skills to their competencies.

Lessons learned from the ExxonMobil dialogues and negotiations which apparently have landed Guyana a less than competent deal must be applied to all sectors and segments of government without delay.

Guyana has a history of investments by multinational corporations whereby it was felt by many in hindsight that Guyana did not get the best possible deal, and this was possibly due to the inadequate dialogue and negotiating machinery of various Guyana government administrations over the years. Omai, GT&T, the Berbice River Bridge (financed locally but built by a European consortium) are some of the projects that were heavily criticised here for costing us too much in the context of their social, environmental or economic impact.

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