DC Brinksmanship Part 2: Negotiation lessons for the rest of us

Michael Wheeler
Experience may be the best teacher in many arenas, but negotiation is a wicked learning environment. The problem is poor feedback. Even when you reach agreement, it’s hard to know whether you got a great deal or left money on the table. Likewise, if you’re stalemated, it could be that no deal was possible or that you over-played your hand.

After all, you only know your half of the story. You can’t know what might have happened if you had taken a different path by being (pick one) more patient, forceful, creative, or accommodating. Learning from other people’s experience—successful or otherwise—is all the harder if you weren’t at the bargaining table yourself.

That’s why I’m skeptical about much of the instant analysis about the recent debt-ceiling crisis. Yes, the economic costs of the government shutdown were huge. And yes, we want our elected leaders to avoid a repeat. But those of us who were bystanders should be cautious about making judgments before we have a better sense of what has happening behind the scenes.

By contrast, President Obama, Speaker Boehner, and other key players must review their respective strategic choices and ponder roads not taken. The questions that they should ask themselves are the same ones you should ask when you’re stuck in contentious conflict. And by addressing them in advance, you may avoid getting as deeply entangled.

1. Was agreement possible? Not everything is negotiable. The best that one party can offer may not satisfy the other party’s minimum requirements. And with some issues of principle, fighting and losing may seem more honorable than compromising.

Obama insisted that he would not set a precedent that would allow a bloc of legislators to withhold spending authority as leverage to undo enacted laws. In turn, Tea Party Republicans may have felt compelled to contest as long as possible what they regard as illegitimate policy before finally stepping aside. Perhaps those differences were irreconcilable.

Be careful, though, about reaching the same conclusion in your own interactions. Picturing yourself on the side of goodness in a battle between right and wrong is self-satisfying, but it can blind you to practical solutions that wouldn’t require anybody to violate his or her values. For example, developers and environmentalists can often craft project designs that meet each side’s needs. And even staunch opponents over abortion issues have occasionally collaborated on prenatal care programs, as well as policies protecting free speech and public safety at public protests.

2. Was there strategic myopia? In my prior post, I described how mutual infliction of pain can escalate conflict rather than lead to resolution. Management and labor both lose when there’s a work stoppage—whether it’s a strike or a lockout. Revenue that a company would have otherwise earned goes elsewhere. Although the pie that the parties will split is steadily shrinking, people justify losses they’ve already incurred by becoming even more demanding.

Was there an earlier moment where the recent government shutdown could have been shortened or averted if one or more of the key players had foreseen how things would ultimately unfold? When historians and analysts have fuller information, they may conclude that such a moment occurred—not this year, but back in the summer of 2011 when Obama and Boehner came close to working out an all-encompassing agreement on government spending and tax policy. One or both of them may now regret not making that deal.

In coping with conflict yourself, you need to have prospective hindsight, that is, the ability to see where each step that you and your counterpart are taking will finally lead you. On any given day, it may feel as if paying your lawyer for a few more hours of her time is easier than swallowing a half-a-loaf settlement. But those costs will mount unless you change your approach. Even if you prevail at the trial, you may only be left with crumbs.

3. Were there relational barriers that hampered agreement? Here we don’t have to wait for the judgment of history. Obama and Boehner’s antipathy for each other is well known. There have been prior presidents and speakers of different parties who nevertheless have had constructive, even friendly relationships. (Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill are prime examples.) But we can’t always choose whom we negotiate with, especially when it’s a dispute.

When emotions run high, you may need a mediator to shuttle between the parties. It could be a trained professional or simply a colleague who you and your counterpart trust. In private conversation, such a person may be able to elicit people’s true interests and float possible solutions. During the Washington deadlock Intermediaries such as Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell may have tried to play this role.

If no such person is available, you’ll have to adopt a mediator’s point of view, by giving as much attention to the process in which you’re engaging the other party as to the issues that you’re fighting over. That starts by asking yourself, at the outset, the three questions we’ve covered: are practical solutions are possible; can we avoid strategic myopia; and how can we forge a working relationship?Michael Wheeler is the author of The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World (forthcoming this fall from Simon & Schuster).

Professor Wheeler has been a key figure at the renowned Program on Negotiation (PON) at Harvard Law School since its founding 30 years ago. During the 2013-14 academic year, he will continue to teach in executive programs at PON and the Harvard Business School, but also be a visiting professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in the fall semester and at MIT in the spring. (Photo: Washington Post via Getty Images)

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