Lessons from Kwakwani

The lessons I learnt in Guyana had also to do with handling conflict and negotiating. Learnt not from case studies or in workshops, but in real life with real consequences. That makes for immensely powerful learning, because your career and in some cases, even your life depends on learning fast, right, and well. In Kwakwani, I was the Assistant Administrative Manager with a Personnel Manager and a Labor Welfare Officer reporting to me. I was all of 22-23 years old and everyone else in the company was older than I was. Gaining and keeping respect was therefore tough but very satisfying. Guyana at that time was a socialist country to the extent that we were all addressed as ‘Comrade’ and not as Mister or Miss. The workers of Guyana Mining Enterprise (Guymine) were represented by the Guyana Mine Workers Union which was the sole bargaining body for the workers with five thousand members. Guyana Mining Enterprise had been nationalized and so the top management was also appointed by the government. This did not create a smoother working environment, just a weaker management position. The General Secretary of the GMWU was a huge man called Stephen Lewis. He had a voice like a megaphone and used it to his advantage. And when he got going, nothing short of a hole in the head could stop him. Listening to Stephen in a closed room with his voice booming off the walls was like sitting inside a surround sound studio. Stephen Lewis was a very dedicated man, passionate about his work, totally incorruptible, and immensely powerful in his advocacy. He went on to become the President of the Union and was invited to address the House of Commons in the British Parliament. It was my honor to have known him, even though the experience was sometimes very trying. I learnt a great deal from him, as you will see in this story.

Given that Guyana was a communist country, the GMWU was all powerful. Flash strikes would happen at the drop of a hat for sometimes real and sometimes imaginary reasons. And then the endurance test would start. I mean the negotiation to arrive at a Terms of Resumption Settlement. I call them endurance tests because the unwritten rule was that the Union called all the shots. When a meeting could begin, when it would end, what in the meeting was acceptable and what could be taken as offensive for which the union could walk out, were all things that the Union decided. But if the management took offense to anything that a union leader said or tried to insist on some semblance of decorum and made that conditional for continuing, the Union would declare that the management was cooperating and was not interested in resuming work and so was at fault. It was as loaded a deck as you could imagine. I learnt conflict resolution and negotiation in an extremely hard school which is my competitive advantage. I do not think I could have learnt these lessons in patience, careful listening, word crafting, leveraging opportunity and standing up against intimidation in any classroom. It was baptism by fire in every sense of the phrase.

Typically, the GMWU would call for the Terms of Resumption meeting in the night around 8 pm. The meeting would go on until 2 or 3 am. Then Stephen would say, “Okay so leh-we meet at 7 am, okay?” We would all go home bleary eyed, try to catch a couple of hours of sleep and then be back at the negotiation table at 7 am. The meeting would go on all day and then around 8 or 9 pm, the union would call for a break and say, “So leh-we meet at midnight, okay?” We would either grab a sandwich in the office itself or go home for a quick meal and back again to the negotiating table.

On one occasion, I remember this going on for three days at a stretch. The idea was simply to see who would physically break first. The challenges were tremendous. To keep your good humor in the face of serious provocation. Never to react. Always to be conscious of the possible ways in which what you said could be misused against you. To make sure that you never say one wrong word as it was likely to make you lose all that you had gained in many hours of negotiation. And at the same time, give the opponent a way out if he needed one. Negotiating from a position of weakness is never easy. But it is great training. It was during one such marathon session that an incident happened that I remember as an example of the iron self-control and the quickness of mind that enables one to win in the worst of situations.

We had been in the negotiating room for many hours and good old Stephen was on a roll. His booming voice bouncing off the walls made your insides vibrate. That night, Stephen’s ability to repeat himself, digress, talk about all kinds of irrelevant history and refuse to see things our way, all done deliberately (as he was one smart cookie), finally got to one of my colleagues and he burst out, “Man Stephen, leh-we talk some sense man!” Stephen stopped in mid-sentence, took one deep breath and burst out, “Ya raas think I taakin nansense?? We cyan accept this arrogance. This is the problem with all-a-yo raas…”. And on and on he went; all preparatory to walking out with his team. If he had done that, we would have literally lost all that we had gained in many hours of painful negotiating. It is then that my boss and the head of our team, the Administrative Manager, Mr. James Nicholas (Nick) Adams spoke. “Man Stephen, hol-ann, hol-aan. Ya na unnerstand wat de bye say man!!” said Nick. “The bye (boy) say leh-we talk cents man!! Daallers and cents. Leh-we talk money!! Tha is wah he say!! So waz raang wid da?”

Stephen took one look at Nick and sat down. “Okay, so leh-we talk money.”

Mr. James Nicholas (Nick) Adams

Later that night, when we had finally signed the settlement, Stephen took our young colleague aside and holding him by the back of his neck said,’ Yo raas lucky you gah Nick. Nick, you smart. Ya save aa’we life. If ya na seh wah ya seh, the union would have been forced to walk out. Hope you learn ya lessen bye,” he said, turning to the poor young chap he had by the back of his neck. Overhearing him, I realized the importance of giving the opponent a place to back down honorably. Something that when we are in a position of strength we forget to do. But in the words of Nick, “Never burn your bridges. You never know when you will need to go across the river yourself.”

Some of my learnings in negotiating in difficult circumstances are:

1.        Speak the language

This is true both literally and figuratively. In Guyana, the fact that I spoke Creolese totally fluently like a native, to the extent that people asked me which part of Guyana I belonged to, helped me no end in establishing quick rapport. Several years later in India, the fact that I learnt and spoke Tamil and Malayalam fluently helped me establish a reputation as someone who was a tough negotiator, but also someone who was fair and understood the problems of the workers. Speaking the language also has to do with peppering your speech with appropriate in-jargon. Phrases and terms that signal to the other party that you understand their business, work situation, culture, social norms, and limitations and appreciate their difficulties. This helps in establishing your credibility as someone who is worth talking to. Remember, that this must be done naturally and sincerely, or it will backfire.

2.        Leverage your reputation

Our reputation precedes us. I have experienced this on multiple occasions in my career and continue to do so. Believe me, this has nothing to do with your FB or Instagram presence. This is person to person contact and word of mouth. Your image is what people perceive. Not what you put on your website. It has to do with how you treat people, what principles you stand on, what you choose to do or choose not to do, all indicate your brand value and character.

In many cases I have seen how humility, good manners, greeting first and simply getting up to welcome the other party into your room with a handshake goes a long way to establish an atmosphere that is conducive to cordiality. Good manners always work, irrespective of culture or geography.

I have always made it a point of treating people with respect irrespective of who they may be. In India, the Middle East, and other places that I spent most of my life in, the social strata are clearly defined and for the most part, are impermeable. But I do not believe in the superiority of one human being over another on any basis. I always treat everyone with respect and dignity which in those societies makes an even bigger impact because it is so unexpected. Having said that, beware of appearing condescending. You must believe in equality for it to appear genuine. It can’t be faked.

One of the principles that I have always held dear and never violated is respecting client confidence and copyright. The result is that I am perhaps unique in that I have never been asked to sign an NDA (Non-disclosure Agreement) by any client, even though many of my clients have that as a standard policy. One of my dearest memories is what Veeramuthu Josiar, one of my workers in the Anamallais tea estates said to me, many years after Guyana. He said, “Nothing bad can happen to you because you always try to help people. Any time you ask for rain, Kadavul (Tamil – God) will send rain.”

3.        Practice Active Listening

The problem with most negotiations, especially in adversarial situations where the level of suspicion is high and tempers are on a short fuse, is that both parties are far more focused on ‘winning’ than on problem solving. This means that most of the time they are busy manufacturing replies after hearing only a part of what their counterparts have said. We call this, ‘reacting to trigger words’. There are some words or phrases that trigger a response from us based on our own conditioning, prejudice, or pet peeve. Many a time, the speaker, after using that phrase or word may have gone on to qualify it or to explain it but we were not listening. Our reaction then causes us embarrassment when the matter is clarified and creates distrust and dislike for us to boot. Whether you like it or not, careful listening is essential, especially if you are likely to disagree. In many negotiating and conflict resolution interactions, the attitude of both parties is usually antagonistic, and so cooperation, giving credit, appreciating or being thankful are all in short supply. As time passes, this hostility only increases and makes both positions ever more intractable. This is what skilled negotiators guard against and deal with early while the atmosphere is still not so polarized.

One very powerful tool which I have used many times, and which helps enormously is to practice ‘Active Listening.’ This means simply to make a rule that you (the listener) must first tell the other (the speaker), what you understood from their statement before making your own. If the speaker agrees that you understood him as he wished to be understood, you move on. Otherwise he/she repeats what they said, and you share your understanding again until you achieve your goal i.e. to ensure that you have understood the issue as they see it. The more contentious the issue, the more important it is to follow this protocol. I always tell people that especially if you think you will need to disagree in a matter, it is even more important to understand what the other person is saying so that you can disagree effectively.

The best way to establish this protocol is to do it yourself. Simply say, “Let me tell you how I understood you.” Then say what you understood. Don’t repeat their words but share your understanding. “I understand you to be saying that………………..”. I have seen that most people immediately see the value of it and if it is done tactfully (don’t tell people to do it directly) they adopt this method. And then you will lo and behold that genuine understanding gets built. There is nothing more likely to help you understand someone’s situation than repeating what they have just described. I have tried this method in negotiating with communist unions in a very hostile atmosphere and can vouch for its effectiveness. This method helps to define common ground which builds an atmosphere of trust, which is your biggest asset in any negotiation. Mutual trust, respect, consideration, politeness, compassion, understanding, and friendship are all words that are not usually associated with negotiating and conflict resolution but let me assure you from four decades of practice that without practicing them, you will never be a successful negotiator.

4.        Make unilateral concessions early

But make sure that they are noticed and appreciated. Actions may speak louder than words, but actions in negotiation are often ambiguous. Concessions, unilateral or otherwise, are only influential in building trust or encouraging reciprocity if the receiver views them as concessions. Parties are often motivated to discount and devalue each other’s concessions and contributions, because they believe that doing so relieves them of the obligation to reciprocate. As a result, many concessions go unnoticed or unacknowledged. This may lead to confusion, resentment, or an escalation of hardball tactics and unaccommodating behavior by the party which feels slighted.

When you make a concession, you are in control and you can give what may not be significant for you but may be significant for the other party. If you are forced to do this, they will see it as a victory for themselves and will not credit you for it. Often the only thing that stands in the way of acceding concessions early is ego. For a successful negotiator, ego is the first thing that must be overcome and subdued. Instead, one must be as objective as possible. This means to be in touch with one’s feelings, identifying them and consciously deciding how you are going to allow that feeling to be expressed. The feeling may be spontaneous, but its expression must always be thoughtfully controlled. That is your biggest strength in any negotiation.

  • Share as much information as you can, freely

The mistake most negotiators make is in holding back information as much as possible. Getting them to divulge even the most mundane details is like extracting a tooth. This is a mistake because it generates distrust, suspicion, irritation and when the other party does manage to get you to say something, they see it as their victory rather than as a favor from you. The other problem is that the less information there is on the table, the more difficult is the decision. Often the only solution is a win-lose position, which is undesirable to say the least. More information, however, helps both parties to generate multiple options. Then, when enough options have been generated the negotiators can move to a closure and choose the option that is most desirable for both parties. Sharing information freely also engenders an atmosphere of trust and the feeling that you are genuinely interested in coming to a mutually satisfactory solution. Finally generating multiple options helps us to unearth hidden win-win collaborative solutions that usually get lost when we try to work with too little information.

  • Convert: Me versus You to Me + You versus the problem

The stance that most negotiators take is to see the opposite party as an opponent or adversary or enemy, who they must defeat. Instead if we can put things in the real perspective of any negotiation, which is me and you versus the issue at stake, you will find that things move much more smoothly. I have found that this works in the most unlikely situations where stances are adversarial by definition. In all of this, the most important thing is sincerity and communication. Some people believe that smooth-talking and glibness are assets. Actually, they are big negatives. Sincerity always shows and so does insincerity. Just as one builds credibility and engenders trust, the other endangers it. Without trust, there is no win-win negotiation.

It is true that a command of the language, especially of those you are negotiating with (more and more true in today’s world of business and politics) is a huge asset as it establishes contact and helps you to be seen as an ‘insider’ faster than almost anything else will. However, irrespective of that, whether you know the language of words or not, the language of the body speaks across boundaries of race and society. What that conveys is particularly important to keep in mind.

If you are a glib smooth-talker, that is exactly what it conveys. The other person, looking at you is saying in his or her mind, “I am not sure what it is, but this guy is too smooth. I am not going to trust him.” Most smooth-talkers sense this suspicion unconsciously and their almost instant reaction is to talk even more smoothly, more words, more eye contact, more handshaking or whatever the cultural equivalent is in different cultures. All that it does is to turn the suspicion into certainty and the other person says to himself or herself, “Whew!! That was a close one. Am I glad I did not agree to anything!! Who wants to deal with this conman? Let him talk all he wants. He is not getting anything out of me.” There is no alternative to sincerity. When you are saying what you genuinely believe, it convinces more than anything else and takes little effort. As they say, what comes from the heart speaks to the heart and has great power.

Reputation is worth its weight in gold. And anyone who sacrifices that for short term gain, is well… let’s just say, far from intelligent.

Kwakwani was a university for me. A place where I learnt lessons in a powerful experiential format that have stood the test of time in my life. I am most grateful to people like Nick Adams, Stephen Lewis, Peter Ramsingh, Norman Lindie and others who invested in my learning. This is my tribute to them all.

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Shahid Waquar

Valuable as usual !! 😇


A story of so many important human values… You seldom find such accounts that immerse the reader across time.

Asadulla Umri

Lessons learnt on field make us better each day… Sir, these experiences has made you understand human behavior which is important to maintain relationships that lasts longer. Thanks for sharing and I hope many of us would learn too. Be Blessed!

mohammed abdur raheem

It was brilliant writeup and the real incidents makes to ponder how to tackle challenging situations.
Bravo Yawar Bhai;it is worth reading and good to apply


Valuable advice, which can’t be measured in ‘sents’. Thank you

Murtuza Ahmed

Amazing lesson, thank you so much for sharing such real life experiences Sir.

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