What To Do When Negotiations Hit a Wall

A single-minded focus on a border wall with Mexico drove the U.S. government into the longest government shutdown in the nation’s history. Program on Negotiation experts analyze the impasse and offer solutions for entrenched parties.

By on / Negotiation Skills

A budget impasse growing more adversarial by the day. A government shutdown that kept hundreds of thousands unpaid, suspended vital services, and damaged the economy. Presidential threats to bypass Congress and declare a national emergency.

How did we get there? The budget impasse in Washington, D.C., apparently started in 2014 when those advising Donald Trump on a run for the presidency were trying to get him to stay focused on the issue of border security and did so by using a mnemonic device: in this case, a wall. Trump adviser Sam Nunberg recalled to the New York Times that he told another adviser to the future president, Roger Stone Jr., “We’re going to get him to talk about [how] he’s going to build a wall.”

The rest is history. After his calls for a “big, beautiful wall” drew cheers in arenas across the country, Trump latched onto his advisers’ memory trick with gusto. Believing it buoyed him into office, the president has been talking about the wall ever since.

If the proposed wall cemented Trump’s support on the far right, opposition to it galvanized the left. Senator Elizabeth Warren referenced Trump’s “stupid wall” at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, while House speaker Nancy Pelosi recently called the proposed wall “immoral.”

It might have been predictable, then, that when Democrats took control of the House of Representatives early this year, budget negotiations broke down over wall funding and culminated in a devastating shutdown. As the impasse dragged on, Trump began talking about bypassing Congress entirely to fund the wall by declaring border security a national emergency. On January 25, he agreed to fund the government for three weeks without wall funding, but threatened another shutdown if Congress didn’t meet his demand in that time.

The battle over wall funding may seem to uniquely illustrate the dysfunction of today’s Washington, but in fact, this type of impasse is common in all types of negotiations. We talked to experts at the Program on Negotiation about how negotiators in Washington and beyond can get unstuck when one or both sides have dug in their heels on a single issue.

Appeal to a bigger tribe

In his book Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts (Viking, 2016), Daniel Shapiro, founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, describes the “tribes effect”— the innate tendency of groups to pit their identity against that of other groups. The resulting us-versus-them mindset leads us to devalue others’ viewpoints simply because they’re not our own.

“U.S. politics has become tribal,” Shapiro told Negotiation Briefings. “There’s the Democratic tribe, the Republican tribe, and the Trump tribe.” Shapiro identifies three characteristics of conflict between tribes: “First, it’s adversarial. Second, it’s self-righteous: Each side believes it’s right and that legitimacy is on its side. Third, it’s insular: We close our ears and argue our side.” The impasse in Washington checked all these boxes. “Each side takes a stance and refuses to back down,” says Shapiro. “Threats, demands, and possible deception contribute to an unsurprising escalatory cycle.”

Unfortunately, the rules of tribal negotiation don’t work well in a multitribal negotiation. That’s because loyalty to the tribe becomes more important than the substance and outcome of any negotiation. To break free from their tribal mindset, parties need to begin by recognizing that they all belong to a bigger tribe—in this case, the United States. “They need to emphasize that they’re all in this together,” says Shapiro. “None of them should want to harm the citizens of the United States.”

Help them save face

When negotiators have dug in on an issue, they typically fear that compromising would signal weakness and cause them to lose face in the eyes of supporters, Simmons School of Management professor emerita Deborah Kolb told Negotiation Briefings. Respecting a counterpart’s dignity, which includes conveying that you won’t embarrass or undermine him, lays the groundwork for mutual trust.

The public nature of the budget talks and impasse in Washington made it especially difficult for Trump and the Democrats to identify face-saving solutions. As a result, they’ve played to their base rather than build bridges. During an Oval Office sparring match on December 11, 2018, for example, Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer scored political points by persuading Trump to take ownership of any shutdown that might occur—but in the process, they reduced everyone’s motivation to reach agreement.

An important step in allowing a counterpart a “graceful retreat” from hard-line positions is to take talks private, says Kolb. Only in privacy will parties feel comfortable brainstorming tradeoffs and concessions. Shapiro recommends that the White House and Congressional Democrats have a very small number of senior staff—one or two people on each side—meet to brainstorm creative solutions. Because the budget negotiations have been as leaky as a sieve, the fewer the number of people present, the better.

Kolb also recommends switching out key players to try to break an impasse. In late 2012, when the White House and Congress faced a perilous “fiscal cliff” deadline for reaching a deal on the federal deficit, a breakthrough came only when Vice President Joe Biden replaced Senate majority leader Harry Reid as the lead Democratic negotiator in talks with Mitch McConnell, then the Senate minority leader. Though political opponents, Biden and McConnell had hashed out the last big federal-tax compromise in 2010 together and believed, rightly, that they could do it again. Parties might also bring in a neutral mediator to promote listening and put a stop to the blame game, says Kolb.

Try value-creating moves

Once a small group of key players is at the table, how can they find common ground? They need to begin by addressing the interests underlying their stated positions, says Shapiro. Trump’s promotion of a border wall is rooted in the security concerns his supporters share. The Democrats’ opposition is, in turn, based on their supporters’ belief that the wall isn’t the best way to curb illegal immigration. Yet both sides share concerns over border security, avoiding shutdowns, and other key interests.

“Normal hard bargaining would transform the wall into some kind of physical barrier to be erected in key places; a compromise on money and other border security measures; and a reopened government,” writes Harvard Business School professor James Sebenius in an article in the Hill during the shutdown. But, he adds, “These are not normal times.” Democrats value a path to citizenship for Dreamers (undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children), but Trump hasn’t been willing to make that concession in return for the wall.

To break the impasse, Sebenius recommends adding to the mix an issue that “both sides want but haven’t been able to get.” Democratic and Republican leaders, including Trump, all enthusiastically support giving the federal government the right to negotiate prescription drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries with pharmaceutical companies, Sebenius notes; voters do as well. Adding such a popular proposal to a budget deal might make Trump more amenable to altering wall funding to include other border security measures supported by Democrats, such as enhanced technology. The two sides might then be able to do a deal on wall funding and a path to citizenship for the Dreamers, writes Sebenius.

What if Trump refused such a deal? Democrats would be on record having agreed to a reasonable package that included wall funding. Having shown “willingness to compromise in return for popular policies,” writes Sebenius, they would position themselves for the next presidential election as the party of yes.

Why two (or three) offers are better than one

One proven way to help someone back down from an extreme position is to make multiple offers, Harvard Business School professor Max H. Bazerman told Negotiation Briefings. Imagine a customer who says she won’t pay a penny more than $2 million for an annual supply of a product. The supplier might then give the customer a choice between (A) $2 million, but with no service, no guarantee, and no priority shipment; or (B) $2.17 million with a service package, a 12-month warranty, and the customer’s preferred delivery date.

Similarly, in response to Trump’s $5.7 billion demand for the wall, Bazerman suggests, Democrats might offer him a choice between (A) $4 billion for the wall and a path to citizenship for Dreamers or (B) no deal and the threat of continuing to publicly blame him for shutting down the government.

As we saw in our cover story, offering two or three packages that you value similarly portrays you as collaborative and encourages the other party to collaborate in return. It also clarifies whether the other party is, indeed, as inflexible on an issue as she claims to be. Finally, it increases her sense of control and ownership of the final outcome.

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