Friday, November 15, 2013

Political stalemate - empathy in negotiation

About a month ago, the US Government was in the middle of a political stalemate. Our elected leaders were on opposite sides of a fence, glaring at each other from between the slats. At the time, I heard lots of arguments from people who supported one side, some who supported the other.

When my friends and family started discussing these topics, at first I recoiled. I'm not one who likes to get in the middle of a ruckus, and this seemed like a doozy of a fight. These were also political arguments, which I know from experience are also emotional ones. If I really want to start a fight among friends, all I have to do is start talking politics.

Sometimes I think our political system has more layers than a baklava. There are the public layers; the ones we see on the news media and the layers we see when we talk to our local representatives. Then there are the private layers of dealmaking between the players (elected officials, lobbyists, assistants to officials and lobbyists, business people with influence) that we mostly don't see at all.*


As the days of the shutdown continued, it became more and more likely that I was going to have to talk to someone about how I felt about the shutdown. This came to a head one day with my good friend W, who asked me how I felt about what was going on.

I said that it seemed that nobody really wanted to make a deal, and they all just want to take sides and place blame. She wasn't happy and started to argue with me.

I said, "Look, I hear you. But - I really think that if the people involved were able to listen to each other with empathy, then we wouldn't have a hard line stalemate. We would have some real negotiation."

I talked about how I took this course in negotiation tactics about a year ago, which was based on a book[1].

The course focused on the idea that if you negotiate over positions, nobody really wins. If my position wins, then your position loses. Our relationships also suffer, so even though I win, I lose. In general, the book and the course talk about how there's no advantage to taking a hard line, or a soft line position.

However, if you get people together and ask them to work past the emotional reactions, that there's usually a place you can find a real connection. To put it another way, if I see you (the person across the negotiating table) as a person, if I can empathize with you, then I can see and understand the underlying problem that's behind the issues. I can stop seeing this as "your issue" or "my issue". Instead it becomes "the problem" that needs solving.

For this method to work we also have to believe that I'm a smart person, that you're a smart person, and together we can find a great solution to this problem. There's no trick; but each side has to believe that they can work together to come up with the answer. An answer that will be a 'win' for both sides.

Her response was to tell me that the real problem with the government stalemate was that the people in charge of making the deals didn't have the power to make these decisions. I said, "Of course they do, they are the ones at the table." She said, "No, they don't, because they can't vote for anything without making their supporters unhappy, and then they won't be re-elected."

I replied with, "Well, then that's a real issue behind the government shutdown. Instead of walking away from the table, they can be negotiating about what would make their supporters happy." They can push past their emotional reactions to each other, stop seeing each other as 'the enemy' and work out a better solution.

The conversation moved on.


A few weeks later the stalemate ended when one side of the negotiating table gave in to the other side's demands, as a result of growing pressure from the American people. I didn't see that anyone in either party was really listening to one another, and I don't see that our leaders will do any better next time. I hope they will.


*Of course, all of my comments here are based on the top layer; I don't have any real idea of what's going on behind the scenes in Washington. I, like most of the American people, am basing my ideas on the media representation of politics. I also see that the media layer is hidden behind another layer; the political leanings of the reporters and the networks they work for. Definitely NOT a sweet layered baklava, it's more like a raw onion.


SP said...

Time has to pass, secret loyalties unveiled, and new personalities voted in.
These people have no skin in the game, they are in another reality, they don,t earn working class salaries, get working class health or hospital services.
They don't live with the fear of losing their jobs- they get lifetime salaries- or getting laid off.
Big tensions on most of us that structures and modifies our economic plans right through our careers.
Very few slide through without compromising.

Janet said...

So, are you saying I should discount their abilities solely because of how their jobs are structured? I'm trying to get past that.

SP said...

Think instead that both sides are puppets they have roles to play, but they don't think.

They have made promises, commitments, that they won't think of breaking or even thinking through.

If they compromise they die.

They have to be voted out, maybe the two party system may have to be replaced.
This one ain't working.

Janet said...

Okay, so let's say that I agree with you. That the politicians make commitments that they cannot break.

Me too. I've made commitments in my life, to my family, to my friends, that I cannot break. I can still talk about them and I can still express what's behind them - because they are my commitments. They are part of my story, and not anyone else's. It's the layers that I'm bringing to the table that are (and should be) discussed.