The Fiscal Cliff and Getting To Yes

Last week with all the issues of the Fiscal Cliff in the U.S., there was a blog on Huffington Post by one of their regular bloggers.  He was complaining about the inability of party leadership to negotiate a deal.  The blogger cited Ury and Fisher’s 1981 book on negotiations, Getting to Yes.  We have cited this book many, many times as we talk about interest-based negotiations and problem solving which is what the book is about.  The blogger referred to the steps with some examples.  Lots of people who know the interest-based process have some minor variations but it’s important to maintain what really makes the process work.  I appreciate the blogger’s knowledge and I also like that he is suggesting the idea of using interest-based negotiations BUT I’m not sure he could use the interest-based process any more than Congress as he invoked his positions in some of the side comments he made.

Here are some things people, including the blogger, need to remember about the interest-based process:

It is absolutely essential to follow the steps.  It’s important to identify problems for what they BUT no finger pointing or placing blame on any one incident or person.  Good brainstorming techniques are necessary to do this.

The blogger talked about interests.  Interests are our wants, needs, concerns, etc.  He said that in his blog BUT it’s important when you identify interests, just identify them, don’t provide the commentary.  Sometimes we suggest one side should identify their interests and then the other side, BUT here is one thing the blogger left out – you go back and identify the common interests and most of the time there are many.  That’s what makes interest-based work and it also provides the parties with some focus to go to the next step which are to identify options.

Once again, the blogger was very good in addressing the need to do identify options BUT he kept putting in position statements on ways to resolve the problem.  We don’t want to do this.  In a real process, we brainstorm many different ways – without positions – to resolve the problem based on the mutual interests we identified.

The blogger is correct with the next step identifying criteria or standards as to how to determine which of our options we will use BUT as I’ve said before you focus on just the steps of the process – no commentary or position-taking.  Criteria or standards help to remove traditional or subjective decision-making such as certain people deciding or certain regulations making the determination.  We normally provide an example of picking out a head of lettuce at the grocery store – how do you decide which head of lettuce you will pick and we have people tell us.  It shows people identifying standards is really nothing new.  We then judge our options against our standards or criteria to determine which options to use.  This is another key piece to interest-based and how it works.

The last step is to decide how to proceed because there will probably be more than one option that met the standards.

As we have said before in our blogs, doing the interest-based process is not easy – especially the first few times.  It’s important to get help BUT there are also some other things that the blogger left out and key pieces.

If groups are going to do the interest-based process, everyone has to be committed to do it.  If that doesn’t happen, the process won’t work.  I don’t know if the Fiscal Cliff could have been done through the interest-based process because I don’t know if everyone would have been committed.  There also are a lot of outside forces causing some problems, too, and that happens in real life.  It just depends on the parties in the negotiations and their commitment.

The other important item the blogger left out is information.  Information needs to be shared to make good strong decisions and again the fact that we don’t know is a case for not rushing to judgment which usually happens when solving problems in the traditional sense BUT I think it shows what happens in the real world and this is why we need to use a very methodical problem-solving process when looking at major issues.

We don’t know if the interest-based process was used or not.  We don’t know what else was going on behind closed doors which is also true in any negotiating process.  Sometimes the parties don’t want to disclose all information or want to send out other pieces of information as distraction to grab attention elsewhere for the media or other constituents.  The point is we just don’t know.

It would be great if the interest-based process was demonstrated by our leaders but it is a tough process.  Sometimes any group can have problems doing it.  Sometimes they just do part of it in their negotiations and when working on financial issues, that’s the hardest part of all.

Here’s the link to the blog.  I hope it’s still out there for you to read.  I do appreciate Bob Burnett suggesting the interest-based process as a good negotiating tool.  It is a great tool but it’s not just the process itself that makes it great.


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1 Response to The Fiscal Cliff and Getting To Yes

  1. I really appreciated your analysis of the Huffington Post piece and your pointing out how good process needs to be a part of any interest-based problem solving (IBPS) situation. All of your observations are quite valid. And since politics is one of my avocations, I too have given quite a bit of thought about the applicability of IBPS to our increasingly contentious political discussions. On this I am of two minds. On the one hand I believe that following IBPS can be quite useful in the resolutions of some issues in the public realm, especially issues where the emotion makes the parties’ common interests hard to see.

    But it really is about how much overlap there is between the parties’ interests, isn’t it? IBPS is about “expanding the pie” which, to some may be fixed, but in reality may be amenable to growing. My concern about using Fisher and Ury’s principles in something like the so-called “fiscal cliff” negotiations is that the size of the pie may really be more fixed than expandable. In disputes where the parties have mutually exclusive end goals or values, IBPS becomes much more difficult. The classic example I have always used is the issue of Mideast peace between Israel and the Arab countries: So much of the dispute is about a fixed amount of land, it makes really integrative (i.e., IBPS) solutions very hard–some would say impossible–to reach. In such extreme cases, a distributive solution (i.e., win-lose) is more likely. Similarly, when one party has a vision of government as a tool to be used actively to improve the lives of citizens (i.e., traditional New Deal/Great Society) and the other party has a vision of government as providing for the common defense and nothing much else, the situation begins to look more like the Arab-Israeli conflict than a typical business deal or collective bargaining contract. Is there really enough overlap in interests to make the process worth it?

    It is possible, in IBPS terms, to say that in cases of fundamental conflict of values or goals, the problem is simply that the parties are too tied to their respective positions and what one needs to do is help them become aware of the “bigger picture” of shared interests. In the case of the Mideast conflict that might be something like “stop the killing.” In the case of the fiscal cliff discussions, it might be something like “have an effective government that is held in the esteem of the public.” Both of these interests should be big motivators to the respective parties.

    My bottom line, I guess, is,”It’s worth a try.” However it’s not going to be easy.

    Keep up the good work!
    Tom Kruglinski

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