Part 2: Negotiation and the uses of history in business

In Part 1 I talked about the importance of ‘placement’ for negotiation, of locating the other party within national and organisational cultural contexts as a way of understanding the likely approach to decision-making.  This involves asking historical questions that allow us to assemble synchronic and diachronic narratives to help develop that understanding.

This task is, or should be, complemented by an investment in understanding our own interests and positions.  It is easy in a negotiation to become preoccupied with the other party, to focus our attention on their background, motivations, tactics and goals, and thereby to neglect the task of reflecting on our own.

Again, I think there is an alignment with history.  As old disciplinary certainties have broken down over the last 40 years or so, a new plurality of perspectives and self-consciousness in practice have emerged.  It is now expected that historians are clear about their claims, methods and commitments and such a task involves a level of engagement with the implications of these for the analyses and accounts that result.  In a sense, historians go through a process of negotiation between self and sources – rather than a uni-directional interrogation.  We no longer ‘hard-bargain’ with our (remote) subjects to extract maximum value, rather recognise that we are ourselves also involved and hence the relationship matters.

For me, there are some potential problems.  Pluralisation is often connected to specialisation and fragmentation, a trend that has perhaps made history turn inwards, less engaged with or concerned about how it relates to, informs or participates in broader public debates and democratic processes.  A greater self-consciousness is surely an asset, but not if it drives us to a level of introspection that shuts down rather than opens up opportunities for reinvigorating and reconceptualising what history is and what historians can do.

Maybe that’s as far as the analogy between negotiation and history can go.  But analogising is probably a good habit to get into.  When reading and thinking about a topic/theme/argument, should we routinely ask: what does this mean for history?  What could history mean for this?  And how can we creatively negotiate between the two?

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