Sunday, 25 March 2012
Talking about net zero: Sometimes it's not what you say but how you are heard
The most successful communicators understand not only what they want to say, but how it will be heard. This is rarely easy. It is particularly hard when the listener does not trust you. Sometimes what you say, even with the best of intentions, makes things worse in ways you haven't thought of, all because you forgot to ask yourself how your words would be understood by your audience.
Perhaps, therefore, one of the reasons that the current round of teacher bargaining became so polarized, so intractable, so quickly, lies in a single phrase: “net zero”.
What government means when it uses this phrase is not that nothing is available at the bargaining table; it is that improvements and concessions must balance out to even, so that, overall, the negotiated agreement imposes no additional costs. The key word in government’s mind is “net.” That’s the word government wants the public and particularly public sector union negotiators to hear. It’s code for the parameters of give and take that government is willing to consider in the current round of bargaining. Within those parameters, dozens and dozens of public sector labour agreements have been negotiated by parties expert in the details of where to ask and where to give. In that world, the union leaders understand what “net” means, and they have found their way to agreement. Reluctantly, to be sure, but agreement all the same.
But when I listen to teachers express their frustration with every aspect of the current contract dispute I think maybe they didn't hear the “net”. They just heard the “zero”. And “zero” sounds and feels like a stone wall.
Perhaps it’s not a surprise that they are so upset? Of course there's more to it than that. Much more. I'm certainly not suggesting that the result would have been the same if only different terms were used But we may never know what could have been achieved in creative, problem-solving negotiations because one side to the discussion thought it was all about the zero and not about the "net".
Net zero may not have begun life as a slogan. More likely it was intended simply as a clever shorthand for government’s public sector bargaining objectives. But that’s not how it was heard by the teachers. The lesson here? Sometimes it’s not just what we say, but how others hear it, that determines which policies will persuade.