Negotiation in the News: Order in the Senate, with the help of a simple tool

By — on / Crisis Negotiations

With the government on the brink of a shutdown on January 19 due to the Senate’s inability to agree on a spending bill, about 17 centrist Democratic and Republican senators crowded into the Capitol Hill office of Republican senator Susan Collins of Maine. But their common goal—negotiating a deal to end the shutdown—was reportedly thwarted by a cacophony of voices.

So Collins grabbed a Maasai tribal talking stick that Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp had gifted her a few years back and laid down a simple ground rule: Only the person holding the colorful, beaded stick was allowed to speak. In traditional tribal councils, the talking-stick method is used to ensure that all members of a group, including those who are reserved, have a chance to express their views.

Over the course of the weekend, the group, which dubbed itself the Common Sense Coalition during an earlier shutdown in 2013, shuttled between Collins’s crowded office and the suites of Senate party leaders Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, the New York Times reports. The group swelled to about 25 members, not all of whom had a chair. After debating a variety of proposals, the coalition emerged with the framework of an agreement, which involved reopening the government in exchange for a promise from Republican leaders to negotiate in good faith for protections for the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.

On January 22, in an 81–18 vote, the Senate passed a bill to end the shutdown based on the deal negotiated in Collins’s office. Many lawmakers credited her and her talking stick for the breakthrough. “Susan’s office is Switzerland,” Republican senator Lindsey Graham told the Times. “It is the one place we can all go and
feel good.”

Close calls and comic relief

After the breakthrough, Collins showed off her talking stick on CNN and told BuzzFeed, “It’s very helpful in controlling the discussion, because as you can imagine, with that many senators in the room, they all want to talk at once. I know it shocks you to learn that.”

The talking stick appears to have done its job, though not without incident. At one point, Republican senator Lamar Alexander “forcefully” tossed the stick toward Democratic senator Mark Warner after Warner interrupted him, nicking a glass elephant belonging to Collins in the process, according to Politico. Group members laughed, and Collins replaced the stick with a small rubber ball. Alexander reportedly brought his own basketball to the next meeting.

“There were no injuries, there were a couple of close calls, but everything worked out fine,” one senator told CNN. However, Democratic senator Dick Durbin told CNN that Republican senator and coalition member Graham had jokingly complained to him that he was tired of “those meetings where they pass the ball around.”

Sticking to the point

Some commentators marveled at the fact that members of the august body of the U.S. Senate needed props to remind them not to speak out of turn. “Apparently, the United States Senate has devolved to the point where elementary school approaches are needed to maintain civility,” complained Matthew Rozsa in Salon.

Arguably, however, it might be unrealistic to expect two dozen individuals negotiating hot-button issues under the ticking clock of a government shutdown to be able to engage in patient turn-taking. The talking stick—and, later, rubber ball—was a useful tool for imposing order. In the Senate, the stick also appeared to provide moments of comic relief and help promote a collegial atmosphere. So, the next time you find yourself in the middle of a noisy debate, grab an object—anything tossable will do—and start talking.