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The Government Shutdown And The Science of Negotiation

The current government shutdown has officially become the longest shutdown in US history.

President Trump and Democrats have been going back and forth, unable to come to a consensus about Trump’s proposed multi-billion-dollar border wall.

But Parker Ellen, assistant professor of management at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, says the stalemate highlights a few valuable lessons when it comes to the science of negotiation.

“Trump wants a wall, but Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer refuse to support funding for a physical barrier – positions they recently reiterated while addressing the nation in primetime,” Ellen writes in his piece for The Conversation. “Currently, both sides are operating in a manner that often prevents deals from getting made.”

Distinguishing Positions From Interests

In negotiation, Ellen says, there’s an important distinction to be made between positions and interests.

Positions are the initial demands that both parties need to move for a consensus to be made. Interests, in comparison, are the underlying motives for positions. In other words, Ellen says, they’re the reasons people make demands in the first place.

“When parties to a negotiation focus on positions, they often reach an impasse. Why? Because there really is only one way to satisfy a position – you either get what you asked for or you don’t,” Ellen writes.

The focus on positions by both President Trump and the Democrats highlights exactly why they’ve reached a stalemate with the government shutdown.

“Each side’s position is clear: wall or no wall,” Ellen writes. “President Trump has demanded that a bill to reopen the government include more than US$5 billion for a physical barrier along the southern border of the United States. Conversely, Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Schumer insist that although they would consider providing money for increased border security they will not provide funding for a wall.”

In Ellen’s eyes, this strategy of putting positions first is a “win-lose” or “zero-sum” approach, where any gains will come at a direct cost to the other party.

Focusing On Interests

On the other hand, when negotiation focuses on interests rather than positions, it becomes more collaborative.

Ellen says this type of collaborative exchange is called “integrative bargaining.”

“When people negotiate over interests, they look beneath positions and seek to satisfy needs, which is the real reason we should negotiate,” Ellen explains. “This approach can produce more creative alternatives for an agreement. It also places importance on the relationship, in addition to the outcome, which typically paves the way for more productive negotiations between the parties in the future.”

In this case, the interest behind both parties is clear.

“Trump seemed to focus on preventing drugs and criminals from crossing the border,” Ellen writes. “The Democrats’ response suggested they are primarily interested in the humane treatment and safe passage for people who want, and perhaps even need, to enter the United States.”

The Importance of Compatibility

The problem with the shutdown, Ellen argues, is that both Trump and the Democrats are refusing to negotiate based on interests rather than positions. But the truth is, interests tend to breed more compatibility.

“People often incorrectly assume that, like positions, their and the other party’s interests are in direct conflict,” Ellen writes. “Interests, on the other hand, tend to be more compatible. In fact, because interests ultimately define the problem, focusing on them can provide far more options for an agreement that satisfies the needs of both parties.”

To put an end to the shutdown, Ellen says, both parties need to be able to hear the other side out for their interests.

“For example, Trump could do more to acknowledge the Democrats’ interest in fair treatment of those who want to enter the United States,” Ellen explains. “Schumer and Pelosi could put more emphasis on the importance of Trump’s desire for increased border security.”

The truth of the matter is, nobody wants a government shutdown. And Ellen says both sides will need to present proposals to end the crisis in a way that meets each other’s interests.

“It’s a difficult task, but it’s the only way both sides, and the country, can win,” he writes.

Sources: The Conversation, Business Insider

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