Why does the EU keep saying the don’t understand? More on the art of the deal

Why are we endlessly told the EU don’t understand the UK position and need more clarity? Perhaps if you were Mr Farage the answer is simple.. they are Johnny foreigners (worse French!) and just don’t understand English. Well perhaps not.


When you’re negotiating being told by the other party that ‘they don’t understand’, can be deeply irritating. Generally, what’s behind the comment stems from one of four scenarios:


  1. You really haven’t explained yourself properly either by omission or confusion whether verbally or in writing. If it’s in a document you’ve tabled at the negotiation as a senior manager you’d normally blame some underling (or ‘the lawyers’) for failing to write down what they had been told as obviously it was not your fault. First base of being at the negotiating table is read and understand everything. If something is wrong in the terms you’ve filed or any of the paper work then sort it out and don’t blame someone else. You own the negotiations and you must take responsibility.


  1. You really haven’t explained yourself and that was deliberate! In which case you’re on the brink of being found out. Whatever it was you’re trying to skate round or cover up is about to come out. Only you will know. Only you can decide how to deal with it but chances are you’d better come clean what you really mean and fast.  The attempted cover up or failure to be up front is always worse than the dealing with whatever issue or term it concerned in the first place. Hopefully a lesson learned for future hopefully.


  1. The other party has no intention of a deal and is using ‘we don’t understand’ as a never ending rebuff to any attempt to further discussions in the hope/knowledge it isn’t going nowhere and sooner or later you’ll give up. Some cultures use this to avoid saying ‘No’ and to save face. Some less pleasant people and organisations use it to either embarrass you or frankly mess ( I could use more floral language here!) with you to cause maximum irritation and upset because they just don’t like you or it’s ‘just the way they do business’. I’ve seen that done many times. It’s not ethical or nice… but it happens.


  1. The other party does want to make a deal but has no intention to do so on the terms proposed by you. Instead of being up front they use the ‘we don’t understand’ rebuff to destabilise you so putting you on the back foot.


Let me explain scenarios 3 and 4 a little more. The problem with ‘but we don’t understand’ is it’s very hard to answer if it goes on too long. If you’re asked to clarify then most people will happily respond the first time with a pleasant set of explanations. If they are met again with ‘but we don’t understand’ again most people will respond happily with a further attempt at clarity. By the time you are on to multiple explanations of the same thing even a saint would start to get irritated. The temptation to say something like what the ****** don’t you ****** understand .. you ******* is all too tempting but breaks the absolute rule of negotiating which is never lose your temper. The other party knows this all too well and in the hands of an arch negotiator the repetition of ‘we don’t understand’ can be lethal.


If the other party just don’t want any deal then the chances are at some point you walk away and they have the chance to look bemused and slightly hurt that you haven’t done the deal while saying ‘but we were only wanting you to explain’ as they chuckle behind your back while you storm out.


If there do want a deal but not in the terms you set out then as your irritation grows and often time pressure increases as this all of this has wasted so much time then either worst of all you show your irritation and they are able to again look hurt that you just don’t understand their poor humble position. That changes the dynamic straight away making you feel horrible and guiltily as you are now the bad guys. All of this leads you to beg their forgiveness and concede anything they ask. Alternatively you get so tired that when at the eleventh hour the other party with total calculated timing suddenly appear to offer a chink of new found clarity (which they had all the time but hid it) say ‘well if you mean X then we could of course compromise and do Y’ you leap across the table hug them. You agree to anything just to get on and the deal over.  In either situation you’ve just been played big time and are what is to use the technical term … screwed!


My guess is the EU are playing scenario number 4! The only antidote is to stay calm, carry on playing the game, don’t show irritation or tiredness, don’t fall for the sudden offer of movement (any movement just get me out of here!) and stick to our guns… wait for them to blink before we do.