A string of recent deals between longtime opponents could give you the inspiration you need to reach agreement with your most difficult partners.
Republicans and Democrats. North and South Korea. The United States and China. All of these pairs have a reputation for conflict, rivalry, and impasse. Yet despite their ongoing differences, each pair recently managed to come to an agreement on an issue important to both sides.
In this article, we review the three recent deals and discuss the lessons they offer to negotiators who are having trouble seeing eye to eye. How did these parties become willing to compromise and collaborate, and how can you foster similar breakthroughs in dealmaking and disputes with your toughest counterparts?
Bridging the divide on criminal justice reform
If there’s one thing Republicans and Democrats in Congress might agree on, it’s that they’ve agreed on very little in recent years. The parties’ shared tendency to exaggerate their differences, view each other’s concessions with suspicion, and focus on stating their positions rather than revealing their underlying interests has led them to impasse on legislative initiatives important to their constituents time and again.
In October 2015, however, the adversaries reached a rare breakthrough on an issue of significance to many Americans: criminal justice reform. Politicians on both sides of the aisle had come to believe that a mandatory-sentencing program for drug crimes, imposed in the 1980s and 1990s, had backfired, the New York Times reports. Liberals argued that locking up nonviolent offenders for minor drug offenses was destroying families and communities. Conservatives saw value in trying to reduce prison populations and spending on the overstrained criminal justice system.
Often in such situations, longtime adversaries are so suspicious of one another that they fail to recognize when their preferences on an issue are compatible. In fact, when two sides want the exact same outcome, they nonetheless often settle on a different outcome or come to impasse, Northwestern University professor Leigh Thompson has found in her research. In this case, over the course of months, an influential group of bipartisan senators was able to recognize the two parties shared similar goals and were able to come together to negotiate the federal justice overhaul. Although there was broad support in the Senate for an agreement, the negotiations were tense and threatened to derail over key details, the Times reports.
The Senate’s lead dealmakers on the issue, Illinois Democrat Richard J. Durbin and Utah Republican Mike Lee, faced a critical task: negotiate an endorsement from Iowa Republican Charles E. Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Grassley’s support would be needed to steer the bill through committee and up for a vote in the Senate. Durbin and Lee lobbied for across-the-board reductions in mandatory minimum sentencing, but Grassley had reservations about loosening sentences for repeat offenders. In the end, he persuaded Durbin and Lee to retain set sentences for certain violent and gun crimes, in addition to winning other concessions.
To gain the backing of lawmakers who feared being viewed as soft on crime, the bill included new mandatory minimum sentences for certain rare crimes, including interstate domestic violence and weapons aid to terrorists. A similar bill is being put together in the House of Representatives; passage of a new federal criminal justice law is expected to occur in 2016.
Negotiators who adhere to different principles and values often disparage the other party’s viewpoint, a reaction that prevents them from recognizing their shared goals. Politicians who value being “tough on crime” may assume they could never reach common ground with those who advocate for prisoners’ rights. In this case, the parties were able to look past their positions to identify a shared interest in reforming the judicial system—both for financial and societal reasons.
Other tips from these talks? Make an extra effort to win over potential deal spoilers during your negotiations, perhaps by reaching side deals on issues that are especially important to them. In addition, brainstorm relatively minor concessions that might help the other side sell the deal to its constituents and other stakeholders.
The Koreas agree to softer rhetoric
In August 2015, the decades-long conflict between South Korea and North Korea threatened to reach a breaking point. The South accused the North of planting land mines that seriously injured two South Korean border guards. South Korea retaliated with an old tactic designed to irritate its enemy: blaring propaganda into the North through loudspeakers lined up along the border. The North declared the provocation to be an “act of war” and threatened to take “strong military action,” including an attack on the speakers, if the South didn’t shut them off, the New York Times reports.
With their militaries exchanging artillery fire, the two governments agreed to emergency talks. Armed forces from the two nations were on standby as the South’s chief national security adviser and a leading military officer from the North met on the border to negotiate a resolution to the crisis. Talks lasted three days, with North Korean officials reportedly taking frequent breaks to consult with their supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.
South Korean president Park Geun-hye said the loudspeakers would continue to blare until North Korea apologized for the land mine incident. The North Korean government refused, creating an impasse. A compromise ultimately emerged when the North agreed to express “regrets,” not responsibility, for the explosions.
In return for the South’s concession (accepting less than a full apology), the North agreed to hold a new round of reunions of families separated by the Korean War, which ended up taking place in the fall. The embattled neighbors also said they were planning to meet in Seoul or Pyongyang for “dialogue and negotiations on various issues to improve relations.” South Korea shut off its loudspeakers but warned it might turn them on again if an unspecified “abnormal case” developed.
For the North’s young and inexperienced leader, Kim Jong-un, the negotiation provided an opportunity to demonstrate statesmanship and authority. One North Korea expert, Kim Dong-yup, speculated to the Times that the North was only feigning distress about the loudspeakers, whose impact has never been proven, to “drag the South into talks.” As for South Korea’s President Park, the compromise may have been designed to quell criticism that her tough rhetoric escalated tensions with the North.
In negotiation, actions and statements designed to convey toughness can backfire by launching an escalatory spiral that is difficult to contain. Carefully negotiating and crafting the language of public statements can help parties save face. Similarly, recognizing that your adversary’s provocations could be intended to bring you together rather than drive you further apart might inspire you to soften your position.
A U.S.-China pledge on cybertheft
For years, the U.S. government has been frustrated by China’s refusal to address the theft of U.S. intellectual property by hackers in China, many of them believed to be government sponsored. In early September 2015, the Obama administration began preparing a package of sanctions aimed at punishing China and other nations for the cybertheft of commercial secrets, the Associated Press reports.
That threat, along with the knowledge that the United States was getting better at identifying the source of cyberattacks, motivated China to send a high-level delegation to Washington to work out a deal in the lead-up to a state visit to the U.S. capitol by Chinese president Xi Jinping.
On September 24, as their teams were still wrapping up the framework of a deal, Obama and Xi jointly announced an agreement to curtail cybertheft of each other’s intellectual property for commercial gain, according to the New York Times. Obama said he had threatened Xi that the United States was prepared to pursue and punish hackers and that he reserved the right to impose sanctions if Chinese hacking didn’t diminish.
The two leaders had been seeking opportunities to overcome their distrust and disagreements on key issues, such as human-rights violations in China. In 2014, Obama and Xi surprised the world with a climate accord in which they pledged to reduce carbon emissions. During his White House visit, Xi solidified that commitment by announcing a new cap-and-trade system in China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
As this story suggests, a carefully timed threat can bring a reluctant counterpart to the table, as long as you fully intend to follow through on it. The deal also shows the value of following through on commitments to build trust.
An incremental approach
Business negotiators typically increase their odds of reaching a mutually beneficial agreement by bringing multiple issues to the table and discussing them simultaneously. By expanding the array of interests, we position ourselves to make tradeoffs among them. Yet as all three negotiations discussed in this article suggest, when certain issues have become so controversial that it seems impossible to come together, there may be advantages to narrowing our focus. By restricting our attention to a subset of issues on which compromise and collaboration appear possible, while setting aside more difficult problems, we may be able to make incremental headway and lay the groundwork for more complex discussions.