The subtle art of negotiation with people across cultures
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The subtle art of negotiation with people across cultures

Interview: Tim Cullen reveals all on negotiating at his course in Bangkok

In January, as the young North Korean president Kim Jong-un relentlessly pressed on with nuclear missile tests, Tim Cullen, an associate fellow of the Said Business School at the University of Oxford and an expert on negotiation wrote an article "Negotiations with North Korea could eventually succeed".

The article, starting with its name, was against the zeitgeist of geopolitics. It was hard for the world's community to imagine that two-stubborn and mercurial characters in the likes of US President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader could sit at the same table to negotiate.

The world is lucky that Mr Cullen was right. Historic peace negotiations between the NK and US were launched a few months later in Singapore.

"I once taught (a negotiation course) in North Korea and any people who think NK is irrational are not right. Certainly, NK is possible to talk with. Sometimes you have to look at people's public statements and try to really understand why they are making statements. Do they make it because they believe it or just try to strengthen their positions before starting negotiations," Mr Cullen told the Bangkok Post.

Prof Cullen is currently in Bangkok, running a course on the art of negotiations called "negotiation across cultures".

The course is being run by a team from the Said Business School, with help from a local partner, EEEI (Executive Education and Enrichment Institute).

It is the first time that the course is being taught overseas, according to Mr Cullen.

The negotiation course, which will end on Wednesday, has seen individuals from the public and private sectors, academia, the military, and even NGOs attend.

Working with World Bank for over two decades, Mr Cullen said he is a firm believer that conflicts can be solved through negotiation.

At the World Bank, he worked on solving conflicts over natural resources such as the case of people being affected by dams in the Mekong River. He's also worked on conflicts surrounding post-war reconstruction.

After the World Bank, Mr Cullen started teaching the negotiation course at Oxford.

In 2008, Mr Cullen ran a seminar in Pyongyang teaching local officials at the United Nations on how to become better negotiators.

For Mr Cullen, a good negotiator is not one who is a fast talker or someone who can bluff well. It is someone who can communicate what he or she wants and is able to understand other people.

The art of negotiating requires one to reduce psychological bias, he said.

"One of the first things that I teach in each class is that you must learn to put yourselves in other people's shoes. That is an absolute fundamental. If you have a bias in your head, you will not be able to succeed."

"You need to control your may have a gut instinct but you need to learn to analyse and say to yourself...wait a minute. Am I working from my heart or my emotion? Am I thinking logically? You need to remind yourself that another person's request is as equally important as yours."

In the case of Thailand, the country is entering a phase of reconciliation which needs a lot of negotiation skill.

As national elections are approaching, the military government has been negotiating with politicians before they unlock a restriction allowing competing political parties to run campaigns freely.

Mr Cullen refused to comment on the political situation in Thailand but said negotiation is always possible.

"I would not say there is a magic formula but the more you know about people on the table, the better. Even important people must understand that they have to give something as well. Sitting around the table means that everybody there must feel the importance of negotiating. The key is you need to find out what they have, what they want, and what can be offered," he said.

Another important thing for negotiators is information. Research enables negotiators to understand the other side better.

On negotiating with terrorist groups, it is important to understand their profile.

"You need to understand who they are and what kind of people this terrorist group represents. This information can help you determine whether or not it is worth the negotiation," said Mr Cullen.

Negotiation is not as easy as it seems and needs a lot of patience. Thus, in many cases, people might want to use legal measure, instead of negotiation.

For Mr Cullen, the negotiation and law are created for different purposes.

"I often tell people who ask me what is better between the law and negotiation? I always say, don't you want to get a good result...Or is that [law] going to give you best result?"

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