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Commentary Post - Ann E. Tenbrunsel

Advice for budget super committee: Stop talking, start negotiating

November 17, 2011

With the budget super committee deadline less than a week away, it appears that the congressional panel is floundering in bi-partisanship.  

As someone who has conducted research and taught negotiations for almost 20 years, I have a few brief pieces of advice for the committee members – or anyone involved in a difficult negotiation – so that they can refocus on the important part of the agenda: finding a solution.

What not to do:

·         Stop making statements that are designed to make the politician look strong but actually serve to weaken the negotiation process.  Making ultimatums – “We will never touch Social Security,” or “We will never increase spending” – backs the negotiator into a corner, eliminating options that may in the long run lead to creative solutions. 

·         Fairness is a great ideal but practically impossible. Fairness is in the eye of the beholder and, as a result, trying to resolve on that basis is potentially a hopeless cause (see my blog in Psychology Today “Politics: Why Can’t We all Just Get Along?). 

·         Stop talking and start listening.  It is not the person who talks the most that wins; rather, the “winner” is the person who understands both parties’ perspectives and is smart enough to find a creative solution.  The negotiators involved need to realize the negotiation is not all about them. Negotiators who focus just on their own interests and on how to claim value for their side actually do worse than negotiators who try to figure out creative ways to solve the interests of the other party.  The reason:  Creativity allows for a bigger pie of resources, and the bigger the pie, the more there is to claim. 

What to do:

·         Politicians need to be given a way to save face if we are to move this negotiation forward.  One way to do that would be to have independent, less politically motivated parties serve as advisors to the committee (i.e., former presidents, congressmen).  These more neutral parties can help mitigate rampant self-interest that is at play here and potentially provide a way for politicians to “save face” by placing the origins for any compromise on someone else (hence it doesn’t look like they are backing down).

·         One of the best ways to encourage cooperation in a prisoner-dilemma situation (which this is, defined as characterized as a situation when the dominantly rational individual strategy is to not cooperate; but, if everyone does that, the entire group suffers) is for someone to stand up and signal their intention to cooperate.  Individuals fall prey to the “sucker effect,” where no one wants to be the “sucker” who cooperates when everyone else decides to compete.  By signaling your intention to cooperate and having everyone else commit to do the same, the ground can be laid for creative solutions to be found.  Given the frustration and disgust of the American people, this could potentially be a winning strategy for the politician who starts the cycle of cooperation.

In the long term,  we have to change our political system so that individual interests of re-election are not at odds with the interests of society.  Term limits seems like a good place to start.