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Not since the 1970s has there been this much industrial action in Britain.

A raft of strikes across the public sector – including the NHS, rail industry, barristers, teachers and more – has seen mass walkouts on an unprecedented scale. Yet despite the enormous costs and significant disruption, few have been resolved, and the government has been largely unwilling to budge.

Most people agree that this lack of movement is as much of an ideological battle as a failure of governance. But what’s the chicken, and what’s the egg? Is the modern failure to compromise in politics across the globe symptomatic of a changing political and media landscape; or does it owe something to our worsening ability to talk, reason and empathise with one another – and if so, what can we do about it?

What are the strikes about?

Whatever your stance on the various strikes, the impetus for them seems obvious. Long public sector pay freezes over many years have coincided with rampant inflation to leave pay for many roles much lower than it should be. This hasn’t just left many people in the lower rungs of the public sector struggling in the current cost of living crisis, but also made areas such as the NHS uncompetitive. Unions have cited low pay as a major contributor to staff shortfalls in the NHS, particularly in nursing. Many across the public sector also feel overworked and underappreciated after working through Covid, with little to show for it.

Low pay in any job can lead to a lack of motivation and struggles to hire, all of which reduce the quality of service. Fewer people taking on more work then leads more people to leave, a cycle which can ultimately put services at risk. For the unions, the strikes are a bid not just to get wages in line with inflation, but also to prevent their services spiralling into further decline – something that more cynical observers believe could be a route to privatisation.

All of which makes the failure to find terms feel like the drawing of ideological battle lines: an absence of negotiation rather than a failure of it. But we’ve seen this in other areas, too. Without kicking another hornet’s nest, the Brexit negotiations were characterised by a failure to reach mutual agreement, leading to years of uncertainty over the Northern Ireland protocol that are only just being resolved. And no government wants to be perceived as failing to reach a compromise when the damage is so apparent. So what’s really driving this – and is the answer as simple as better negotiation skills?

The culture of communication

It should be said at this point that the apparent death of negotiation stretches well beyond these shores. There’s been a lot of talk about the death of bipartisan politics in the US, too, where the Republican and Democratic parties have become increasingly adversarial ever since the mid 2000s. While the US is firmly locked into a two-party system, other countries have seen wild swings across the political spectrum, with populist parties gaining popularity across Europe. Far from wanting to cooperate on major issues, most want to radically change how their countries are governed, citing an urgent need for change.

This inability to negotiate or cooperate is arguably also a broader societal issue. Social media is often blamed for driving wedges between people, and reducing the civility of general discourse, but technology in general has led to changes in communication skills. Because we live so much of our lives online, many people are less practised at – and see less value in – talking in person or over the phone. One could argue that an increase in employees switching jobs is as much down to an inability to negotiate better wages as the desire to seek a better working environment.

This is perhaps less applicable to the older politicians and union leaders who are leading the current negotiations. With this said, there is perhaps an expectation from both voters and union members that no quarter should be given. Not only is there an absence of effective communication between both parties, but many people do not want either side to compromise. Again, the strength of opinions on both sides have started negotiations out on the wrong foot – and poor negotiation skills may have exacerbated this.

Improving negotiation skills

Better negotiation starts with improving the desire to negotiate. Influence, Persuasion and Negotiation Skills can help to broaden people’s perspectives and build bridges, providing a foundation for constructive talks.

Our Introduction to Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) can also help to build rapport with people you might otherwise not have much in common with, and avoid linguistic pitfalls that might send a tense conversation in the wrong direction. Chairing Productive Meetings could also provide a working structure for initial contact, ensuring that points are addressed and followed up on over the course of discussions.

That may be enough to get people around the table, but the talks might still be tetchy. From there, we’d recommend Conflict Management and Resolution in the Workplace, which helps to avoid and quell conflict, and harness disagreements to establish common ground between both parties.

Time Management can also be useful to maximise the time available in critical meetings, ensuring that progress is made as quickly as possible in order to shorten industrial action. Finally – and perhaps most importantly – Managing Challenging Conversations can help to soften people’s language, improve listening skills, and avoid topics or specific language that can elevate tensions.


All of this is slightly tongue-in-cheek, but the point holds: many people, particularly in leadership positions, would benefit from improving their communication skills. While there may be reasons other than poor negotiation for the lack of resolution to strikes, the impasse seems to be symptomatic of a broader societal issue.

Understanding people better – and being able to have more meaningful and productive conversations – could help to combat the rise of partisanship, and make organisations and governments more representative of the people they’re responsible for. If training can make a mark on that, we dare say it’s worth a try.

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Our range of courses can all be tailor-made to help you and your team achieve your goals, whether they are growing sales, facilitating change in the business or dealing with customers and suppliers. Whatever your negotiating objectives are, we can help identify your options and the solutions available.

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Mark Fryer

12th April 2023

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