On language tone and haute couture

What a difference a week makes. One minute our PM espouses strong and stable sentiments only to get a pasting at the polls, and she now appears to be becoming far more contrite in the process. I meant to do a piece so soon as initial lambasts on Brexit occurred. My message then is the same as it is now – the tougher you sound the greater the gap becomes between you and those you wish to talk to, as they just respond with gusto sounding equally bombastic as our PM did in her desire to please her home audience. Of course far from pleasing them they stuck two fingers up to her and look at her now.

Poor old Nick Clegg admitted in his final speech before departing from the stage on election night that if you live by the sword you die by the sword. Maybe he had all politicians in mind as us Brits take adversarial politics to a new level whilst maintaining our British respect for democracy and politesse. They use of course words not swords, and let’s look at how those words are put over. John Major famously used a soap box like those used in Hyde Park to carry his message to a far wider audience than choosing highly controlled venues, and he looked the part. There is little you can probably remember about his clothes – 50 shades of grey more like! Whether you are putting you message across to voters or setting up your stall for negotiations to leave the EU – words, tone and style all matter so much. The word ‘hand bagged’ became much more popular in the Thatcher years as handbags and the Iron Lady seemed to be permanent bedfellows. She was a keen advocate of getting those she dealt with in an upper arm twist, such that hearts and minds followed. But she had style and a sense that she was the right person to have around at the right time. Sharp words, brusquely stated, brightly coloured pointy shoes and large beads seemed to be Theresa May’s favoured negotiation tactics and that seemed to reinforce her overall demeanour in her dealings with European politicians in particular and just about everyone one else on the home front – the archetypal awkward woman. But used bluntly diplomacy or the lack of it simply widens the gap and adds to the differences, rather than true diplomacy being used as the velvet glove of power – if the likes of Merkel can wield power without raising her voice beyond that of a Teutonic bonne maman then why don’t others follow suit?

Let’s look at it in the round rather than just as a commentary on how a politician looks. Moderating your language and reducing unrealistic demands encourages reciprocal responses, and looking and sounding the part helps. As mediators we are constantly encouraging parties in what are usually pretty difficult conversations to sound as if they want to engage with the opposition – using positive and non-adversarial language put over in a manner that seeks to persuade rather than cajole. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we are asking them to under-sell their claim or the veracity of their response. They have come to the table to do a deal. I constantly see people in conflict using extreme language and making extreme claims and responses that simply make doing deals harder – that is after all why mediators are brought in to assist these negotiations. The deeper the hole or the more extreme the differences the higher the bar becomes to doing some sort of acceptable deal. When you eventually do get round to negotiating, by saying that any deal has to be on our terms and looking the part – how does that look to those your negotiating with? Looking at Europe – as I can’t resist the political jibe – anyone with a tiny bit of brain would know that we need inwards immigration to function and that the rights of nine tenths of those working here from Europe are needed and should be respected. Similarly in Europe the Schengen Treaty is if not dead in the water in need of life support. So safe and secure borders are now very much on everyone’s agendas. If such things are pretty obvious then why on earth don’t politicians narrow the gap by saying so? If it has to be a good deal all round so that all parties get a mutually beneficial outcome then why isn’t everyone involved sounding the part? Was it Theodore Roosevelt who said something like ‘speak softly and carry a big stick and you will go far’. Maybe handbags will come back into fashion?

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