Away from the Podium and Off to the Balcony: William Ury Discusses the Debt Ceiling Negotiations Facing Obama and US Congressional Republicans

A discussion about the aftermath of avoiding the fiscal cliff and the rounds of tough negotiations between Democrats and Republicans still to come.

By on / Conflict Resolution


Back in 2013, New York TimesJames B. Stewart interviewed negotiation expert and Program on Negotiation co-founder William Ury to discuss the aftermath of avoiding the fiscal cliff.  According to Ury, an easy prescription for what ails DC politicians: They need to learn how to negotiate.

Co-author of Getting to Yes, William Ury says:

This isn’t rocket science … It’s sad to watch this kind of brinksmanship … There are plenty of ways to arrive at a good, responsible agreement that’s satisfactory to each side and, above all, is good for the country. You could put some high school students together and they could do it.

Each side in the debates is taking increasingly harder positions, making negotiations at the bargaining table tough. Increasing levels of anger and frustration only create, according to Ury, “huge and unnecessary obstacles to reaching an agreement.”

Dr. Ury cited former Harvard professor and noted economist Thomas Schelling, whose metaphor likened each side in the debate to two trucks hurtling towards each other in a high-stakes game of chicken.

In our FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School – The New Conflict Management: Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies to Avoid Litigation – renowned negotiation experts uncover unconventional approaches to conflict management that can turn adversaries into partners.

Many of the dynamics in these negotiations are the byproducts of emotion, anger, frustration, and feelings of betrayal. In all negotiations, William Ury advises us that, “key [in negotiation] is to distinguish between the people and the merits. It doesn’t have to be so personal. Both sides need to take a deep breath, keep their eye on the prize, and focus on what will serve their party and the needs of the nation.”

Dr. Ury calls this method ‘going to the balcony,’ where one steps back from the ongoing negotiation, assesses the situation and develops an objective view of it.

While the negotiation experts James B. Stewart interviewed agreed that the Obama administration had a slightly stronger negotiating hand, William Ury holds out hopes for a ‘grand bargain’ between the two parties.

To help chide them in that direction, Professor Ury offered this possible solution: President Obama could agree to long-term debt and spending negotiations now, and Republicans could approve the raising of the debt ceiling. This way the two are not explicitly linked.

Both sides get something. The president would strengthen his hand and it would be good for the country. He could convey the message that to get spending cuts, you don’t have to hold a gun to the head of the country. The Republicans would be hard pressed to say no. They can say that spending cuts are back on the table. They could aim for a ‘grand bargain’ or maybe a series of smaller bargains.

What have you learned from presidential negotiations? Leave us a comment.

In this FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School,  Dispute Resolution, Working Together Toward Conflict Resolution on the Job and at Home, the editors of Negotiation Briefings cull valuable negotiation strategies and curate popular content to provide you with a concise guide on how to improve your dispute resolution skills.

Related: Becoming a More Balanced Negotiator

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