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Greek Talks: Should They Have Used A Mediator?


Mistrust at the negotiation table

The integrity of the negotiations was surrendered at an early stage.  Almost from the outset, the parties around the table seemed to have lost all trust in each other.  The Times Leader (“Pity and Fear” on July 6) characterized the Greek negotiators as inexperienced, ‘mendaciously inept’, and ‘clownishly inflexible’.  Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the IMF, pleaded for ‘adult’ negotiators on the Greek side; whereas the Greek negotiators described the troika – the entity on the opposite side of the table, consisting of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – as jack-booted, bullying blackmailers.  Both Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European Commission and Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis had made ‘furious outbursts’; and the very people charged with brokering a deal staged angry walk-outs from the talks. Such a level of mistrust and animosity amongst the negotiators could not have been conducive to a resolution.


The problem with such negotiations

Even with the best will in the world, round table discussions in the absence of a neutral facilitator can become positional and strategic. Each party adopts a ‘position’, and in order to secure or maintain that position, they feel obliged to be strategic and tactical. They set out their stall and argue it doggedly . These ‘stalls’ tend to be extreme positions, because each party believes they will be forced to move as the negotiations progress. As a result both sides start further apart than may be really necessary. This is followed by incremental movements on both sides, until each feels they have moved and conceded far too much, until in the end they say: ‘No more’ – and impasse results.


What could a mediator have done?

By ‘mediator’, I mean a wholly neutral and independent third party – one who has absolutely no financial or political interest in the outcome.


Mediators are trained and skilled to deal with high emotions, with name-calling, with walk-outs, and other child-like antics that seemed to permeate the Greek talks in Brussels.  Mediators are able to facilitate dialogue where parties are so exasperated with each other that they have given up the desire to speak or to listen to the other; mediators can enable conversations where the parties have reached such heights of frustration as to have lost the ability to communicate at all.


A Mediator in the Brussels talks?

Skilled facilitators might have been able to absorb emotions so as to prevent walk-outs, and manage reactions so as to avoid angry outbursts. They would have separated the parties and shuttled between them when it became apparent that remaining round the table was proving counter-productive. They could have kept the parties apart until emotions had subsided sufficiently to allow irritation levels to drop from explosion point. They could have reframed unpalatable messages: for example, when the Greek negotiators resumed negotiations with the message that they had nothing further to put on the table, a mediator might have been able to reframe that communication in such a way as to avoid the imminent withdrawal of the other party from discussions.


Lessons to be learned

If the media reports were accurate, it seems that neither side felt it necessary to seek the assistance of an independent facilitator or mediator. That is staggering. In circumstances where there was so much at stake, where the emotions were at levels which completely overwhelmed reason, and where the parties were at each others throats from the start, a neutral facilitator should have been seen as a vital and fundamental ingredient in any such negotiation process. It may still not be too late: it is well known and widely acknowledged that mediators can succeed even after negotiations have failed.

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