Balancing Competing Interests, Waxman Style

By — on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

What if you were Henry Waxman?

Waxman, in case you haven’t been following the healthcare debate closely, is a man in the middle. The Democratic representative from California is chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a famed Congressional dealmaker. As a key player in health reform, one of the most complex multi-party negotiations imaginable, Waxman must work through a morass of competing interests to emerge with a compromise all parties can love … or, at least, not hate.

So, pretend for a moment you are Congressman Waxman. What do you do about –

  • Labor unions, which insist on not taxing healthcare benefits to pay for health reform?
  • Conservatives, who insist on not raising taxes to find the needed money?
  • Health insurers, who say it isn’t fair to be forced to compete with the government?
  • Liberals, who say government competition is necessary to keep health insurers honest?
  • And a myriad of other stakeholders, from drugmakers to citizens’ lobbies to small business and more, with their own interests they’ll pursue with everything they’ve got?

At the Harvard Program on Negotiation, we have learned a lot about high-stakes multi-party negotiations, and we know – even when the stakes are super-high and the issues very contentious, the first step should always be the same: Sit down and listen.

Listen to everyone. Be genuinely curious, not combative. When you ask questions, make sure they’re open-ended, not loaded. Acknowledge feelings. So-called “active listening” conveys that you truly understand what the other side is saying, even if you don’t agree; and, by acknowledging feelings, you further convey that you’re sensitive to what they’re not saying.

Once you learn where everyone stands, bring them back for the next step. If you were Waxman, you might find yourself saying something like: ‘I know you want X, Y and Z – but so do a lot of others. It’s not in my power to give you X or Y … but what if I could give you half of Z?’

And Waxman might hear back something like this: ‘We’d be willing to talk about that … if you’d promise not to give those other guys any of X.’

Waxman, a lawyer by training, has been in Congress 34 years. Like Waxman, Harvard-trained negotiators seek to add value for all parties – to grow the pie, so to speak. That way, each stakeholder leaves the table feeling he or she did at least as well as the next person, and was treated fairly in the process.

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