We spoke with our course coordinator and negotiation expert André Picot, to talk about his “Negotiation in Humanitarian Crises” course (available both online and residential), the key characteristics of negotiation in humanitarian contexts and the importance of training in this sector.
During your career at ICRC you worked in several countries in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and the former USSR, and covered various positions in operations and training. Can you tell us more about your career path?
I feel I have been very fortunate because my career path allowed me to conduct operations in very tense and volatile contexts and to alternate that with positions as a trainer either at HQ or in the field. Training allows you to take a break and reflect on both your own practice and your organisation’s. In the field of negotiation, this is key. In this domain, you don’t have ready-made recipes. Something considered as a best practice in a given context can turn into a disaster if used in a different environment. This is why sometimes you have to stop, reflect and share your reflections with others.
Why did you choose to focus on negotiation in humanitarian contexts?
When you enter into a negotiation you have to seek what you have in common with your counterpart and what separates you from them. Building bridges in situations of war or catastrophes is one of the most rewarding aspect of the humanitarian work, even if we have to be aware that these bridges are often small and fragile.
In your opinion, what are the key challenges facing humanitarians in their negotiations today and what kind of skills they need to overcome them?
In the domain of negotiation, the basics remain the same. Some 2,300 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, said that in order to persuade someone you have to use three kinds of arguments: ethos, pathos and logos. This is still true. The most important skills, in my opinion is empathy, your ability to step into your counterpart’s shoes.
The biggest change I observed in the past 35 years is linked to the evolution of communication technology. While in the past you could concentrate on the local context and on the present moment, today wherever you are you have to think globally, and so does your counterpart. They might have searched on the web details of your personality and experience, the profile or your organisation, its activities and shortcomings.
Why do you think continued learning is so important for humanitarian professionals facing negotiations?
In a humanitarian negotiation, you have to think fast about lot of aspects at a time when emotions are often very strong. New tools are being developed to help negotiators putting a framework to all what is happening and to analyse the environment they work in. Another important aspect of continuous learning is reflexive practice, thinking of past or ongoing negotiations and share outcomes with people facing similar situations.
Which are the specificities of negotiations in humanitarian contexts?
If you open any book on negotiation, the first element that will usually come up is the concept of interdependence. You sell a product to someone who needs one. In a humanitarian negotiation this interdependence is often far from obvious. For example, when crossing a checkpoint, one would wish not to meet the other side. Also, in a humanitarian context, all negotiations are interrelated and do not end when you get to a Yes. Emotions run high all the time on all sides. A win-lose conclusion of a negotiation might have devastating consequences for the future of your relationship. Even a win-win conclusion is often not sufficient, you need a “win-win-win” one to include the beneficiaries of your negotiation.
When doing a research that led to the first manual on humanitarian negotiation, I was amazed to see how often those who negotiate are not aware that they are doing a negotiation.
At the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies you are the coordinator of a course on Negotiation in Humanitarian Crises, can you tell us more about this course?
For the academic year 2020-2021, we have developed two fascinating courses, one is delivered online and spread over two weeks while the other is offered in Geneva and in classroom. The advantage of the online course is that you can follow it up from your work/residence wherever you are using 2–4 hours a day. The Geneva course is a full-time week. Meeting physically eases the sharing of experience and allows role-plays. These courses are open to both our Executive Master’s students and external professionals. For the latter category either you get a certificate of participation or if you add an essay, you can have a certificate with two ECTS credits.