Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Getting beyond impasse

The quote of the week might be from Republican Congressman Marlin Stutzman of Indiana who summed up his side's dilemma last Tuesday as follows: "We're not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is."

The inability of Democrats and Republicans in Congress to reach an agreement that will allow the government to continue to operate and pay its bills, something both sides presumably want, serves as a good illustration of how conflict itself can paralyze the parties trapped in it, and can prevent parties even from accomplishing things they might be able to agree on. We could analyze this conflict in terms of the respective demands of each side. We could try to figure out who is to blame for the situation. (We know who is to blame.) But none of that analysis would truly capture the dynamic the way one Congressman's offhand remark has captured it.

First, the Congressman is demanding respect: "We're not going to be disrespected."  What is the Congressman asking for? Simple: Pay attention to us. Listen to our concerns. Grant that we have a legitimate point of view. Include us in the process. One key to successful conflict resolution is to recognize participants' deep-seated needs to express themselves, and to be heard and acknowledged and understood. But in both private disputes and political disputes, parties would often rather do anything before agreeing to grant any validity to the other side's point of view. Respect for our democracy nevertheless demands that all viewpoints be included and considered.

Second, he is expecting a tangible reward. "We have to get something out of this." Republicans pinned their hopes on obtaining substantive concessions on the healthcare law or the budget by making their demands at the point they perceived they had maximum leverage. But they have no clear exit strategy in response to Democrats' refusal to negotiate while a gun is being held to the American peoples' heads. What both sides need now is a face-saving way out. They need to be able to tell their constituents that they achieved some kind of result out of this struggle, and that it was all worthwhile for some reason. In recent days, the conflict has focused less on the issues that originally drove it than on process demands. Republicans seem ready to settle for an agreement by Democrats simply to negotiate, and the dispute right now seems to be about whether the negotiations will take place before or after the government gets up and running again. However the conflict is resolved, both sides are going to want to tell their constituents that they did not back down, but the other side did back down. In other words, what is at stake here is the ability of both sides to say that they achieved something important, that they held on to their principles, and that the other side gave up something of value.

Third, this statement reveals a confusion about goals. "I don't know what that even is." It's a good idea to enter negotiations with a strategy and a realistic appreciation of what can be achieved through negotiation. But the conflict itself inflames passions and clouds reason. Parties trapped in conflict are literally incapable of using the portion of their brains that engages in logical and rational thought. They have been taken over by more primitive instincts like their fears and their allegiances. Until those driving forces are acknowledged, they cannot move on to consider rationally any of the solutions that might achieve some of their goals.

So instead of ridiculing Congressman Stutzman's statement, it might make sense for Democrats in some fashion to address all of the needs and concerns that such a statement reveals. Democrats can do that without without conceding a single substantive point. They can do it without giving up their refusal to negotiate. (See my post here on why it makes sense for Democrats to refuse to negotiate.) What they would have to do, however, is agree to treat the other side with some respect, to acknowledge how strongly they feel, to listen to their concerns, and to suggest that some tangible rewards might come out of a process of continuing dialogue. That is the way out of conflict.

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