Conflict Resolution

Advanced Problem-Solving Strategies

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This week, by passing a new budget agreement through the House (still waiting on the Senate), Congress finally seems to be learning how to get back to business. To do that requires managing truly unresolveable conflicts, instead of allowing those conflicts to gum up the works completely. Positions on both sides have hardened to the point where Republicans will not accept even a penny of tax increases, and Democrats will not accept cuts to entitlement programs. That means the usual split-the-difference approaches no longer work. Meanwhile discretionary spending has already been cut more than both sides feel comfortable with. Support for restoring defense cuts in particular cuts across party lines. So how do you craft a budget agreement in this […]

During the 1980’s, when South Africa was in the news all the time, when the divestment movement was in full swing on college campuses and countries around the world were imposing sanctions, when South Africa was being ripped apart by repression and terrible violence, I remember thinking that South Africa served in some ways as a microcosm of the whole world. In that country a small minority of European ancestry was imposing its will on the majority African population, consuming most of the wealth for itself, and adhering to the fiction that the majority population could be confined to a few artificial “homelands.” It was an unsustainable system, but the leaders of South Africa seemed unwilling to yield. I remember […]

I’ve finally been catching up on the first season of the TV series House of Cards. The hero, House Majority Whip Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, is a ruthless and cynical politician interested in obtaining power and using it. He repeatedly gets the better of his adversaries by his willingness to resort to lies and tricks, implying that such unscrupulousness is necessary to get ahead in politics, and that those who are unwilling to resort to underhanded tactics are going to be left behind. It’s a popular view of negotiation in general, that successful negotiators need to use trickery and deception to get the better of their adversaries on the other side of the table. The trouble is that […]

Over the weekend, negotiators in Geneva achieved what many are calling an historic agreement with the Iranian government. What was achieved is an interim agreement, effective for the next six months, that essentially freezes Iranian nuclear development and allows for the lifting of some international sanctions against Iran. During that time, the parties will attempt to negotiate a more comprehensive agreement that satisfies the world community’s demand that Iran be precluded from developing nuclear weapons while moving toward normalized economic and political relations with Iran. Before the ink is even dry on this agreement, we are hearing a wide variety of reactions, most of which are predictable. Some are already heralding the agreement as President Obama’s greatest foreign policy achievement, […]

Next time somebody tells you they don’t want to give an inch to the other side in a negotiation or litigation, it might help to suggest to them that they might want to be more practical than our Congress. You probably don’t risk having an argument if your friend or client happens to be from the opposite political party as you. The one thing that most Americans seem able to agree on, no matter what their political persuasion, is that they hate Congress. In the latest example of Congress’s ineptitude, we saw this week the spectacle of Senate Democrats deciding to change the rules of that body by a simple majority vote in the middle of a session, something that […]

The quote of the week might be from Republican Congressman Marlin Stutzman of Indiana who summed up his side’s dilemma last Tuesday as follows: “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” How many mediators have heard parties make similar statements? I’m guessing most have. The inability of Democrats and Republicans in Congress to reach an agreement that will allow the government to continue to operate and pay its bills, something both sides presumably want, serves as a good illustration of how conflict itself can paralyze the parties trapped in it, and can prevent parties even from accomplishing things they might be able to agree on. We could […]