Greek Elections: Why Its Debt Negotiations Are In Danger Of Failing

In May 2014, Jim wrote a piece for Forbes called “Why Negotiations Like the Syria Peace Talks Fail” that took a big-picture look at one of the globe’s most pressing geopolitical issues.

Unfortunately, because we as a species are slow to learn the lessons of our shared history, many of Jim’s points can apply to what is currently happening in Greece and the European Union.

Some quick background, because not everyone follows European politics: The Greek government called a snap election for January 25, which a coalition of radical left parties, collectively known as Syriza, won.

Greece’s economy is in shambles: Unemployment hovers around 25%, and the 300-plus billion euros the country owes in debt represents 175% of its GDP. Syriza’s platform included promises to do away with austerity measures and seeks a write-off of most of the country’s debt.

That means the Greek government will try to negotiate an agreement with its creditors — the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank, in large part — in which 300-plus billion euros in debt is forgiven.

Let’s stop right there and return to the Syrian peace talks post from 2014. Here were three of Jim’s points about where the Syrian peace talks failed:

  • Not helping the other party discover something important to their interests.
  • Not listening and trying to discover the other party’s pain, then finding ways to resolve it. “The tendency is to tell, sell, explain, expound, and deliver ‘lectures’ instead.”
  • Not helping adversaries feel emotionally safe enough to take a look at pain problems.

Let’s take those lessons and apply them to the rhetoric, the explaining and the lecturing going back and forth between Greece and the rest of Europe right now.

Delivering Lectures

  • “The verdict of the Greek people, your verdict, annuls today in an indisputable fashion the bailout agreements of austerity and disaster,” Alexis Tsipras, who will most likely become the government’s new prime minister, said in a victory speech.
  • A shouting match, rather than a grand bargain, threatens to prolong the agony of slow recovery and high unemployment,” Marcus Walker wrote in a piece for the Wall Street Journal.
  • “A top European Central Bank official said the bank wasn’t willing to write off any of the Greek debt it holds,” another WSJ piece reads. “‘Mr. Tsipras must pay,’ ECB executive board member Benoît Coeuré said in an interview with French radio station Europe1. ‘If he doesn’t pay, it’s a default and it’s a violation of the European rules. … The debt is owed to taxpayers, not speculators or financial markets. Canceling that debt would be a €240 billion gift to Greece.’”


A Big Problem

No one, particularly from the Greek side, appears to be trying to build a vision within the worlds of its adversaries, particularly the world of Greece’s creditors. Instead of these conversations, we see references to “austerity and disaster.”

We are not European political experts, of course, but as negotiation coaches we can spot where something is fundamentally going wrong. And Greece will never be able to reach an agreement with its creditors without first discovering and building visions within its creditors’ worlds.

In Start With No, Jim tells the story of a company that faced an existential crisis because it was losing $100,000 on every machine it sold to a client. The company had to renegotiate with the buyer, or else the company would fail.

The untrained negotiator might appeal to the buyer by saying, “Just imagine what effect this could have on our company.” Instead, Jim coached the negotiators to paint an image of pain in the buyer’s minds, and the message then became, “Just imagine what effect our failure could have for your company if we cannot deliver these machines.”

By building a vision within the realities of the adversary’s world, the two companies concluded an agreement where the supplier would sell machines for a $100,000 profit rather than a $100,000 loss.

We hope Greece and Europe can both find paths toward renewed prosperity, and we understand that the issues Greece and Europe face are vastly more nuanced than what vision building can accomplish.

Nevertheless, helping its creditors build a clear vision would certainly be a step in the right direction for Greece.

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