One of the most important lessons we can take from culture is that culture is not about making differences, culture is about recognising differences. Due to the rise of social media and the fast pace of information being communicated, people are quick to make judgements based on assumptions being presented on a surface level without giving due cause to what informs people’s behaviour.

This article features in the Sunday Business Post on Sunday 26th of August 2018.

This is where culture meets negotiation. If we want to effectively influence someone or work in a collaborative manner, one must understand the opposing party. What has become clear over the last few years is the way some politicians have polarised society by concentrating on fixed positions and the single narrative.

Culture is Stories, lots and lots of Stories

Chimamanda Adichie in her Ted Talk, “the danger of the single narrative” said “it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

Ury and Fisher of Harvard PON fame are best known for their research into successful negotiations. They describe taking a fixed position as a contest of wills in which the side that takes the more extreme position and holds out longer fares better.

What Boris Johnson, Jacob Reese Mogg, David Davis and all the Brexiteers have done is highlighted the importance of culture when trying to influence the counter party when in negotiations. Their maintenance of a fixed position in the organisations has ultimately proved unsuccessful and all three have now resigned their party positions, but the crucial point they missed in their negotiations was culture.

Negotiation Involves Two Sides

The approach of the Brexiteers differed widely from that of their European counterparts was their approach to negotiations. For example Michael Barnier visited the border to gain a deeper knowledge to the challenges posed by the Brexit issues to Northern Ireland. By taking the time to visit people and understand their circumstances, Barnier was able to champion the cause of the customs union and protect the Good Friday agreement.

Another stakeholder in the Brexit negotiations is the DUP’s Arlene Foster, and she’s a lighting rod for controversy from all sides, but particularly the ‘Remain’ political wing.

This is where we need to move from the singular narrative to understand the frame of reference from Arlene Foster’s perspective. People mistake personality and cultural identity. As Erin Meyers has stated, it is not a question of personality or culture, it is personality and culture.

While many may see Arlene in negative terms, her supporters will see her as a champion of their cause. What is their cause?

Protecting Stories

Arlene Foster is protecting the cultural identity of her community. Up until the civil rights movement in the 1960’s the Unionists in Northern Ireland had great power and a strong identity in Northern Ireland.

Ever since Austin Currie’s 1968 housing protest which ignited the Northern Ireland civil rights movement the balance has shifted towards the Nationalist identity. The DUP stance therefore went from a position of great power and strength to a weakened position where they gave an inch and the nationalists took a mile.

Therefore, they have always been on the losing side since 1968. Even during the Good Friday agreement, Arlene Foster made a very public exit during the final negotiations in protest such was her dissatisfaction with the Good Friday agreement. We must remember that over three thousand lives were lost during this protracted conflict and countless victims of many levels.

One must also take into account that Arlene Foster was also a victim of the troubles when a school bus full of children was blown up and a school friend of Arlene’s was seriously injured. To add to this, there was a murder attempt on Arlene’s father as he was shot by the IRA in the name of the nationalist cause.

I personally spoke to Ernie Wilson – the driver of the school bus. Ernie said that the it feels like yesterday and the pain still lives on. Hearing different narratives like this provides a greater appreciation for cultural awareness.

One must remember that the Unionist’s identity is at stake here. An all-Ireland government would be a major threat to their identity. Looking back through history, the celebrations of William of Orange and the siege of Derry informs the culture. This siege mentality is celebrated every year through orange order parades. Given a new perspective to the importance of cultural identity.

Many people do not fear change, people fear loss – a loss of power, a loss of identity, a loss of community, a loss of security. Hence, the DUP’s is not an antagonistic stance, this is a protectionist stance against loss of heritage, culture and identity. By viewing the Brexit issue through the frame of reference of the DUP, one can appreciate the great sense of fear and positive intention behind the anger that can sometimes be displayed.

Arlene Foster was further enraged by comments by both Michael Barnier and Simon Coveney in some comments to the press. She challenged both politicians to become more culturally aware.

Since Arlene Foster made her views known, both Barnier and Coveney have changed their language to be culturally sensitive. Arlene herself has made strides to move away from her singular story by attending the GAA Ulster football final where she supported her local county Fermanagh. This was a first for a DUP leader and the symbolism behind this attendance was to show that she too is making an effort to be more culturally sensitive.

A Single Lens is Blinding

So Brexiteers, much like Trump, only focused on their positions and saw the conflict through the singular lens. This approach clouded their judgement while limiting the options available to them. By omitting the culture factors to negotiations, they were unable to understand the frame of reference of their counterpart and reduced their ability to influence.

Much social and political capital can also be gained by adopting this approach. In a complex and volatile world which is ever increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous should there be a heighted awareness of cultural intelligence and emotional intelligence.

These cultural factors are often lost during media reports during conflict and negotiations.

To conquer new frontiers and navigate the complex challenges that the political world poses to businesses and nationality’s. We must show appreciation to these nuances as they serve as essential elements to advance negotiations. To an end they enhance relationships towards a collaborative approach to mutualise shared interested and needs.

Taking this approach will move away from a zero-sum game that the Brexiteers have created towards a mutually beneficial treaty that will benefit citizens and celebrate diversity. Seeing life though different cultural lenses, as Chimamanda Adichie tells is, “Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories”.

William Corless is an IMI associate lecturer on the High Impact Leadership Programme. An executive coach, certified mediator and corporate trainer who works with C-suite leaders across a wide range of industries both nationally and internationally, William is also a guest lecturer with Notre Dame University.