Conflict Resolution

Advanced Problem-Solving Strategies

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This week Congress appears poised to succeed in passing a budget, a feat many were not sure was possible in these partisan times. Budget negotiations were a subject I took a strange interest in during the Obama years, when all the talk was of whether the president was able to make his promise of post-partisanship work. President Obama was alternately criticized in budget negotiations for being too conciliatory toward the opposition, or too unwilling to work with Congressional Republicans, while Republicans were alternately criticized for being too obstructionist, or too unwilling to stand up for their principles. Whatever the merits of these conflicting criticisms, many political prices were paid during those years, but the government somehow managed to muddle through […]

In my sometimes over-simplified way of looking at negotiated agreements, I have argued that the most useful way to evaluate a potential deal is to compare it to alternatives that are actually available. Do not compare it to the deal that you think your side is entitled to, but instead compare it to whatever is likely to happen if you don’t make a deal. When nations are considering entering into peace treaties or trade agreements, for example, it’s generally not helpful to evaluate their benefits by comparing them to the best agreement your side might want. Instead look at whether the deal on the table is a better alternative than not making any deal at all. The same with settlements of […]

Yesterday, President Trump had a contentious call with Prime Minister Turnbull of Australia, in which he questioned a deal made by the Obama administration for the United States to accept a number of refugees currently held in detention by Australia, indicating we might not honor it. Other government officials spent the day trying to smooth over the disruptive and aggressive conduct of our new president. What is ironic is that Australia has long had a much tougher and more racist immigration policy than the US. We detain people claiming refugee status until their cases are determined, but Australia refuses to allow even people who have been deemed refugees to set foot on the mainland, so they remain in deplorable conditions […]

When you look at the literature on negotiating, you tend to find (at least) two schools of thought. One, exemplified by Fisher and Ury’s Getting to Yes and its progeny, is a “win-win” approach that emphasizes communication and exploration of parties’ underlying interests. The other is more of a “win-lose” philosophy that emphasizes getting the upper hand in negotiations and gaining profits for one side at the expense of the other. Some have labeled these as “soft” or “hard” approaches to negotiation. Before trying to evaluate which approach to negotiation has more validity, I should note that there is some overlap between the two camps. An interest-based bargainer might say that being mindful of the other side’s interests does not […]

Senator George Mitchell, the architect of the Northern Ireland peace agreements, spoke at the SCMA Conference the Saturday just before the election. Not knowing or making any assumptions about who would win, Senator Mitchell addressed what we, and the next president, need to do next to help bring us together and solve some urgent problems. He stressed the importance of listening to opposing views, and working together to find consensus on policy issues. Our political system is supposed to encourage that kind of cooperation because our system of separation of powers, unlike a parliamentary system, rarely puts one party in total control of the government. So what tends to result when the two parties fail to cooperate is political gridlock. […]