Conflict Resolution

Advanced Problem-Solving Strategies

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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 […]

The most high profile negotiations in the world this weekend took place in Geneva, where the U.S. and Russia announced agreement on a framework for the surrender of chemical weapons by the government of Syria. Apparently discussion of this issue has going on for a long time. The idea of disarmament by the government of Syria did not simply arise in response to its recent chemical weapons attack. We might therefore try to analyze this agreement using modern principles of interest-based bargaining. Syria and Russia have an interest in resolving a terrible civil war (they are hoping to resolve it in favor of the government of Syria). They also have an interest in trade and decent relations with other countries in […]

I heard a great story tonight from a college professor. Near the beginning of this professor’s course on political philosophy, a student proclaimed that there was no such thing as justice. “I’ve read Nietzsche,” the student said, “and so I know that there is only power. Justice does not exist.” The professor asked the student to give the course a little more time to test his assumptions. “But I’m warning you,” the professor advised. “If you still think the way you do by the end of this semester, you are not going to get a very good grade.” “You can’t do that,” the student said. “Why not?” asked the professor. “Because it’s not fair!” The professor told us how pleased […]

One of the panels I attended at the ABA Section on Dispute Resolution spring conference turned into something of a psychology experiment. The presenters asked the participants to sit around a series of circular tables, and assigned each table a role to play as groups interested in a proposed canal project for a hypothetical harbor. My table was assigned to play several environmental groups opposed to the project for differing reasons, another table represented shipping company owners concerned about the cost, another represented union interests favorable to the project, and another represented government representatives sponsoring the project. We were asked to discuss among ourselves our concerns about the process that was supposed to take into account all of these different […]

Yesterday, Congress managed to pass legislation avoiding some of the potential negative effects of the so-called “fiscal cliff.” Most political analysts are trying to figure out whether this negotiated outcome is a victory for Democrats or Republicans. That is the wrong question to ask. The right question is whether the deal is better for each side than the alternative of failing to make a deal. Since the public, as well as the stock market, would have looked very unfavorably on the failure to make a deal, the agreement is clearly a win for both sides. Whether one side or the other gave up more of their original positions to achieve the deal probably reflects the relative bargaining strength of each […]