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How birthday cake can dilute strong negotiation arguments

Another day, another Boris Johnson lockdown revelation – this time it’s the beleaguered Prime Minister’s birthday celebration back in 2020.

Whilst there can be a positive side to screwing up (see our blog 'I screw up'); it does seem to be one thing after another at the moment for our Prime Minister. After ‘Christmas party-gate’ and ‘work cheese-and-wine party-gate’, we now have ‘birthday party-gate’.

At Savage Macbeth we really like birthdays (it was our first birthday last week), so it got us thinking about the events that Boris has been connected with and whether there is a difference between them and how the PM might be perceived as a result? The first two incidents produced an emotive response from many people – the ‘jocular’ nature of the press conference dress rehearsal and the ‘blatant’ fun and frolics of cheese and wine at a so-called work event during strict lockdown.

Compare and contrast the first two events with a surprise Birthday party organised by the prime minister’s back-room staff portrayed as a ‘10-minute event where a small group of staff, brought in a birthday cake’. Whilst the cumulative effects of all these events paint a very bleak picture in general of our leader’s behaviour, the Birthday party alone could be argued as the lesser of the three indiscretions. What the birthday party can serve to do, is to dissipate or dilute the strength of feeling surrounding the two earlier events. We do recognise that nothing will take the hurt away from those families affected by Covid over the last few years due to the actions of a few thoughtless individuals in the government.

In negotiation terms this situation is referred to as ‘weak arguments diluting strong ones’. Imagine you’ve just had a really hard day at work. You come home, your partner says to you ‘I’d love to go out for dinner’. Now you’re really tired (strong argument). If you are feeling weary, then say so. This is the equivalent to the strength of feeling about the respective Christmas and Cheese and wine parties’ and the blatant disregard for the rules by the rule setters themselves. Heads should roll! However, going back to the going out for dinner example, if you then start to add ‘…and I’ve got no money on me’, ‘…and there’s no fuel in the car’, you then run the risk that people will problem solve the lesser, weaker arguments (‘that’s OK, let’s take my car’). In the same way that an apology; a stern ticking off; or making an example of somebody might satisfy an ill-advised Birthday party – not organised by Boris, short in duration and with only a few people. This also potentially draws attention away from the major misdemeanours in favour of the more minor one.

In a negotiation (or conflict in general), if somebody presents you with a strong reason for doing/not doing something – you can ask if there are ‘any more reasons?’ (you might be able to problem solve these latter, weaker reasons, undermining their argument). However, If you’re the one presenting a strong reason for change or action, stick to one or two powerful reasons and then – shut up! This should resonate a more powerful message.

Boris – take note!

Sam Macbeth, 25th January, 2022

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