What the Bar can learn from … Military negotiation

What lessons can lawyers take from the battlefield to the Bar without fear? Former army officer Tom Tugendhat MP guided barristers on how to compromise whilst maintaining authority


It’s not just about bringing death to the Queen’s enemies. If you Google ‘which professions require good negotiation skills’, ‘lawyer’ comes top of the list, followed by ‘sales rep’, ‘event planner’ and ‘CEO’. Soldiers aren’t mentioned, but, as those who attended a recent Survive & Thrive event at Middle Temple heard from Tom Tugendhat MP, an ability to negotiate and to broker a compromise is critical in the military.

Following a spell as a journalist in Beirut, Tugendhat joined the Territorial Army and saw active service in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Southern Afghanistan, where he was deployed, the aim was to achieve a stable peace. For there to be any chance of achieving that, a solution had to be based on compromise rather than purely on a credible threat of the use of force.

Battlefield preparation

Negotiation starts with intelligent preparation of the battlefield. Tugendhat explained that prior to any engagement with the other side it is vital to have invested time and effort in understanding the reasons for the conflict and what it is that various groupings want to achieve – including your own side.

As to the latter, it is essential, he said, to be honest about what is realistic so that you can formulate a clear plan of where you want to get to, whilst having also considered some acceptable fall-back options. In other words, have the difficult conversation with your own side in advance so that when you embark upon the negotiation you have a clear plan of action which includes a firm grasp of your best outcome, your bottom line and any points on which you can be flexible.

Arming your enemies may sound strange but...

Tugendhat pointed out that compromise is much easier to do from a position of strength, because if you are not threatened by the concessions which you are being asked to make, then you are more willing to make them. Sometimes, then, it is necessary to find a way of making the other side feel empowered so that they are prepared to give you what you want.

In 2006 Tugendhat was the adviser to the Governor of Helmand Province, Southern Afghanistan. The new governor was replacing the most powerful of a number of warlords, a man who had hitherto ruled the province with extreme violence. The new administration was determined to govern in a way that did not depend on criminal gangs and mafia-style violence, but any efforts to impose a new style of rule would inevitably disrupt the established power structures centred on tribal leaders and would require those local leaders to make compromises that were deeply threatening to them and their families and supporters.

"Understanding the psychology of the other side is vital... it is important to grasp, for example, that whatever other things your adversary is prepared to relinquish, their pride will not be one of them. "

Tugendhat explained that it became clear that the more powerful and established a tribal leader, the easier it was to extract the necessary compromises. It was the weakest of the leaders with whom the new administration struggled to reach agreements, because those weaker tribal leaders knew that concessions risked eventuating not just in their deaths but also in the deaths of their sons and grandsons. This led, he said, to the new Helmand administration developing a strategy of arming those weaker leaders: if they felt that they could adequately protect themselves from their enemies, then they would agree to grant to the Administration concessions – free movement over a particular territory, for example.

Thus it is important, in a negotiation, to understand what you can give the other side to enable them to make a concession: a classic example being to offer an apology or some other non-pecuniary benefit, which will allow the other side to accept a lower figure than they were seeking.

Build a golden bridge

Understanding the psychology of the other side is vital in other respects as well; it is important to grasp, for example, that whatever other things your adversary is prepared to relinquish, their pride will not be one of them.

Tugendhat pointed out that the purpose of most negotiations is to resolve a dispute, and that to do that effectively lingering dissatisfaction has to be eliminated or at least minimised so that the conflict does not resurface in the future, infused with venom from nurtured resentment. This, then, is why you should consider building a golden bridge. The concept of the golden bridge is attributed to the Chinese general, military strategist, writer and philosopher Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu taught that if an army has surrounded its enemy it is wise to leave an avenue of retreat through which the enemy can withdraw. This is the ‘golden bridge’ which allows the enemy to avoid certain defeat through escape, rather than digging in and fighting to the death. For a negotiation to conclude successfully the other side will need to feel that there has been movement from your side so that agreement has been worthwhile.

It's not about you

Tugendhat said that however hairy the negotiation gets, however hostile the other side and however personal the hostility feels, it is vital to remember that it is not about you – it is about what you represent.

He told the story of his experience of being attacked in Northern Helmand – and when he said attacked he was not referring to an aggressively phrased submission, but to a serious attempt to kill him. A local tribal chief sent a couple of suicide bombers to his offices by way of an assassination attempt. Although they missed their target – Tugendhat – they did succeed in inflicting loss of life and others close to him died.

Tugendhat’s point was that when the time came for dialogue with that tribal chief, he had to put aside any feelings he might have about the viciousness of the attempt on his life and the suffering to those close to him that the man had inflicted. What was important was to find a way through, to maintain dialogue keeping in mind that the overall aim was to attempt to broker a durable peace. That is certainly something to remember when faced with an obnoxious opponent seeking to undermine you in front of your clients.

Beatrice Collier practises in police law, public law and mental health/capacity law from 5 Essex Court Chambers in London. She is a member of the Middle Temple Survive & Thrive steering committee and is co-creator and co-host of the Middle Temple’s Pupillage podcast.


Following a spell as a journalist in Beirut, Tugendhat served for 10 years in the Territorial Army including in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has been the Member of Parliament for Tonbridge and Malling since 2015 and is Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The son of retired High Court judge, Sir Michael Tugendhat, the Lieutenant Colonel MP spoke at the Middle Temple Survive & Thrive event, Co-operation and Compromise, in April 2019 alongside comedy writer and former doctor Adam Kay, and moderated by High Court judge Dame Philippa Whipple DBE.

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Beatrice Collier

Beatrice Collier practises in police law, public law and mental health/capacity law from 5 Essex Court Chambers in London. She is a member of the Middle Temple Survive & Thrive steering committee and is co-creator and co-host of the Middle Temple’s Pupillage podcast.