Conflict Resolution

Advanced Problem-Solving Strategies

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Last night I had a chance to see an early screening of the new movie, Captain Phillips, based on the true and well-known story of the ship captain freed by Navy Seals after being taken hostage by Somali pirates. While the manner in which the captain was freed has to be somewhat disappointing to mediators, the movie still provides a good illustration of the problem faced by hostage-takers who fail to get their prisoner to a safe location. If they give up the hostage, they risk being killed. If they kill the hostage, they will almost certainly be killed or captured. And if they try to bargain for the hostage’s release, they still face the difficulty of making a clean escape. At some point in this story, the hostage takers begin to realize that they have only created a trap for themselves. That’s when they can become most dangerous.

Also last night the deadline ran out for House Republicans to bring to the floor a bill that would continue to fund the federal government. Instead, they continued to insist on adding new conditions to achieve objectives they cannot achieve legislatively (because they will be blocked by the Senate and the President). Their chief objective: the delay or dismantling of Obamacare. House Republicans have failed to keep their hostage safe in these negotiations. They may be able (at least temporarily) to demonstrate their power by shutting down the government, but one thing they cannot do by these tactics is delay Obamacare, which is taking effect on October 1 even while the rest of the government is shut down. Republicans are thus shooting their own hostage without being able to achieve their principal objective, a strategy that seems about as defective as that employed by the failed group of Somali pirates in the movie.

Hostages can be taken in all kinds of conflict situations. If not an actual hostage, there might be a threat to blow up the process if one side doesn’t get their way: Pay the ransom, or we’ll shoot the hostage. Give up the health care law, or we’ll shut down the government. Meet our settlement demands, or we’ll take the case to trial. The trick is to avoid pulling the trigger, especially where pulling the trigger is probably going to defeat your objective.