In negotiations, responding to anger—or any strong emotion— with patience can often lead to a successful resolution.
This is one of the lessons of the multiparty negotiations that culminated in the signing of the Northern Ireland Peace Accord, known as the Belfast Peace Agreement, in 1998. These negotiations were led by George J. Mitchell, the U.S. senator who served as the independent chairman of the process. His job was to manage ten political parties, two governments, decades of hostility and mistrust between Catholics and Protestants—and between Unionists and Nationalists—and the constant threat of terrorist sabotage. Senator Mitchell had his hands full.
Even before the talks got started, the two main Unionist parties criticized the unelected chairman for having been foisted upon the group by the Irish and British governments. On the first day, one of the Unionist leaders repeated “no, no, no” the moment that Mitchell took his seat; soon afterward, both leaders led their members out.
The senator stayed calm, however, gave his opening statement, and pledged to work fairly and impartially for peace and political stability in Northern Ireland. Next he announced the principles of democracy and non-violence that came to be known as the Mitchell Principles and proposed that each party affirm its commitment to them. All present did so.
Mitchell then had to convince the two Unionist groups to come back to the table and accept the principles. If they refused, he told them they would be ineligible to participate. Here he was able to separate the issue (the U.S., British, and Irish governments ostensibly colluding against the Unionist groups) from the person leading the process (who the Unionists saw as a puppet of that supposed alliance). Mitchell didn’t take their rebuttal personally. He realized that his best course of action was not in what he said—“I will be fair and impartial”—but in what he did.
After some patient and protracted persuasion from Mitchell, the Unionists did return to negotiations and accept the principles. However, they continued to reject Mitchell as the leader of the process, refusing to acknowledge his authority or call him Mr. Chairman. Mitchell ignored this. In doing so, he not only stayed grounded and in the moment, but he also managed to keep his ego from getting intertwined with his goals.
The personal rebuttal was not a rejection of his position; conversely, when the Unionists rejected his position, he didn’t let it bruise his ego. Over time, as Mitchell moved the issues forward with respect and understanding, they came to call him Senator, then Mr. Chairman, and finally, after seeing what Mitchell was made of, George.
Violence ended up temporarily derailing the process many times over the three-year negotiation. Nevertheless, all the parties remained committed to the principle of resolving their issues in a nonviolent manner. By setting up the Mitchell principles as ground rules at the beginning of the negotiations, the senator was able to minimize the effect of terrorism that had become a way of life in Ireland. When a bomb exploded and the IRA claimed credit, the Sinn Fenn was expelled from the talks and not permitted to re-enter until they arranged for a continuous cease-fire by the IRA over a period of months.
Mitchell had learned the need for patience and tenacity years earlier, in an intense senate race in Maine. He was also able to analyze the situation calmly, see the broader perspective, and genuinely listen to all parties with compassion. The result was a transformative negotiation, a signed agreement, and lasting success.
Excerpt from The Transformative Negotiator: Changing How We Come to Agreement from the Inside Out. By Michèle Huff, J.D. UNHOOKED BOOKS.