Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The conflict trap

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." How many mediators have heard parties make similar statements? I'm guessing most have.

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. But none of that analysis would truly capture the dynamic the way one Congressman's offhand remark has captured it.

It's a mistake to try to resolve conflict by focusing solely on what the conflict is ostensibly about. In legal disputes, that means mediators sometimes need to pay less attention to the legal and factual issues that might play an important role in resolving the case in court, and more attention to the interpersonal dynamics that are often driving the dispute. In the political dispute that is consuming the nation right now, that means we probably should pay less attention to the parties' respective positions on deficit reduction, changes to Obamacare, taxes, spending levels, etc., and more attention to the way the political process itself is working (i.e., not working) to frustrate and enrage participants on both sides.

One can mediate disputes by simply asking the parties to state their respective positions, and then trying to coax both sides to make concessions that will get them closer to agreement. But that is not the most effective or satisfying way to mediate disputes. A more effective way is suggested by Stutzman's offhand comment. Rather than ridiculing such a comment, let's see whether it suggests a better approach to resolving the conflict.

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 mediation is to recognize participants' deep-seated needs to express themselves, and to be heard and acknowledged and understood. Often, the other side is more reluctant to grant that kind of validation to the other side than to satisfy the other side's substantive demands. I've seen parties in mediations refuse even to listen to the other side, but then agree to meet their settlement demands anyway. They have thereby decided that it costs them more somehow to acknowledge the validity of what the other side is saying, even if they don't have to agree with it, than it costs them to pay the other side to go away. But if they listened more, they might have made a more favorable deal.

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. 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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