Negotiators—whether politicians or homebuyers—begin with bold concessions which rapidly shrink the gulf between opposing sides. But like curves approaching an asymptote in geometry, as they near an agreement they level off and struggle to bridge the final, though trivial, gap. The effect of their ongoing quarreling is that, by the end, their motivating goal is not so much to strike a deal or make a sale as to make the other side yield, on no matter how minor a point. The fact of winning a concession matters more than the concession's substance. Not who yields most, but who yields last, appears to lose. The negotiation grows more bitter, the less remains at stake.
I was over at White & Case* last week talking to its women about the perils of negotiation without the inclusion of face-saving mechanisms. As I told them, it's a common mediation experience for the parties to make concessions in the millions to tens of millions of dollars only to reach final impasse over which side is going to pay the mediation fee ($5K) they'd agreed to split before the session began.
That's not about money, it's about face.
We call this end stage simply the final impasse but when the end stage stretches out into a seemingly endless future, we call it a "hurting stalemate" which is what we've got in Washington right now.
So how do you break an impasse that may or may not turn into a hurting stalemate?
First of all, you ask yourself and then, if possible, your bargaining partner, what hasn't yet been put on the table. Parties often reach impasse because they're attempting to achieve a hidden goal that they believe their negotiation demand will achieve or help achieve. It's been suggested, for instance, that shutting the government down and then re-opening only those agencies that the Republican party would like to see functioning is not a bad consequence of the parties' failure to reach agreement, but a hidden goal. If you take a look at the list of agencies shut down, you'll see there at least half of the GOP target list for ending or lessening government regulation. The Department of Education. The Environmental Protection Agency. And that department Rick Perry couldn't recall was on his hit list during the Presidential debates.
If you have a bargaining partner who is in fact achieving a goal - as collateral damage - that it might not otherwise be able to implement, you need to surface the hidden agenda. Remembering the importance of face-saving for a partner who may have backed himself into a corner, it's best to first raise the hidden agenda behind closed doors. Any negotiation in which all items to be traded are not on the table is a failed or sub-optimal bargaining session.
Face. We have a saying among my people that you can't save your face and your ass at the same time. Although there's real freedom on the other side of losing "face," few people are willing to go in that direction. It usually takes the total and complete collapse of your particular house of cards before you're ready to see the benefit of coming clean. That being the case, you've got to help your negotiation partner save face and you can't do that by airing a commercial comparing your opponent to a squalling baby during the national broadcast of a Sunday football game.
Bad move, Dems.
How might the GOP save face while backing down from the brink of economic disaster? Give them victory. They won the sequestration round of the Obama vs. the House negotiation. Give it to them. They already have it. Don't praise them. Complain about their victory far more often than you're doing now.
The far right Tea Party politicians are not worried about re-election but the Democrats potential Republican allies (the moderates) are terrified of losing their seats if they vote . . . well . . . moderately. Find a way to provide them with election protection. I believe this has been done several times before with the actual infusion of funds into certain politicians campaign coffers. It's also been done with political support from hidden stakeholders. The Chamber of Commerce, for instance, once a hidden stakeholder, has now come out in support of re-opening the government and authorizing a raise in the debt ceiling. Good for it. Wall Street too has been putting pressure on the right to avoid the danger a shut-down and a subsequent default would have on the world economy.
We're talking about interest-based, mutual benefit negotiation strategy and tactics here. It's not rocket science. What are your bargaining partners interests - what do they fear, value, prioritize, prefer, and, need. What do you have of high value to them (giving them a victory) and low cost to you (giving them a victory they already won).
Finally, there's "spin." That old Washington game we litigators and negotiators call "framing."
For god's sake, please stop calling the damn act Obama Care. Did the administration not see the Jimmy Kimmel episode where, when given a choice, random folks on Hollywood Blvd. said they liked the "Affordable Care Act" but despised "ObamaCare."
As Dick Draper recommends - if you don't like the conversation you're having, change it!
Finally, as the television ads being run on cable in Republican strongholds last week amply demonstrated (as if we didn't already know) the Tea Party's marching orders weren't to govern but to bring Obama down. Why not give them Obama's virtual head on a platter?
Count up everything the Obama administration lost due to GOP opposition since his '08 election. Treat it as news. Because visuals are so important, particularly to the chronically uninformed, actually put Obama's head on a platter and run his defeats over the image. Treat re-opening the government and raising the debt ceiling as magnanimous acts of the GOP in the face of the AntiChrist who would bring the country down to serve his own interests. Give them victory without compromising anything.
There are dozens of other ways to break impasse. But let me stress that prolonging a hurting stalemate is easy. You simply publicly demonize the "other guy" and dance the macarena over his grave.
JUST. STOP. IT.
And put into practice those best negotiation strategies and tactics that I guarantee you every politician knows.
*W&C is one of the top law firms for women and has earned its designation as such.