Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, you can probably agree that the current 20-day government shutdown is covering no one in Washington in glory. Parks are filling up with garbage, airport security personnel are walking off the job, and air traffic controllers are posting their $0 pay stubs to Twitter. It's a mess and, as president, Trump is clearly taking a fair chunk of the blame.

"Someone needs to gently explain to the president that, going forward, he might want to adjust his negotiating strategy," the New York Times editorial board suggested this morning.

The man for the job just might be Northeastern University management professor Parker Ellen. The negotiation expert took to The Conversation recently to explain just where Trump has gone wrong and what he (and other leaders who actually want to master the art of the deal) should learn from the current impasse.

Forget positions and focus on interests.

Explaining the crux of the president's disagreement with the Democrats is dead simple. He wants billions of dollars for a border wall. The Democrats told him no way. These two stances are what negotiation experts terms "positions." It's natural for two parties in a negotiation to have initial positions, but where the president has gone wrong is in failing to move on to a subtler and more productive conversation about interests.

"When parties to a negotiation focus on positions, they often reach an impasse. Why? Because there really is only one way to satisfy a position -- you either get what you asked for or you don't," Ellen sensibly points out.

"Positions are the initial demands or starting points from which both sides typically need to move for an agreement to be reached. Interests, on the other hand, are the underlying motives for positions -- the reasons people make demands in the first place," he explains.

While a single-minded focus on positions leads to a zero-sum negotiation (i.e. the 'I win. You lose' negotiating style Trump prefers), working from the basis of interests, which tend to be more flexible and compatible, allows for the possibility of a win-win negotiation. What could that look like in the case of the current impasse over the wall?

"The language used in their recent primetime addresses hints at the interests of both sides. Trump seemed to focus on preventing drugs and criminals from crossing the border. The Democrats' response suggested they are primarily interested in the humane treatment and safe passage for people who want, and perhaps even need, to enter the United States," writes Ellen.

"When people negotiate over interests, they look beneath positions and seek to satisfy needs, which is the real reason we should negotiate," he adds. 

Solid advice for all leaders

Ellen ends his piece with a plea for our leaders to stop being pigheaded and look beyond positions to interests. "Although the current political climate clearly amplifies both sides' competitive approach and hinders a shift from positions to interests, that is the most productive path to an agreement," he concludes. "To end the shutdown, both sides should find a way to make that shift."

It's sensible advice for politicians, but also for any other leader looking to strike a lasting and beneficial deal as well. Positions lead to shutdowns. Interests lead to productive conversations and solutions, so focus on the latter not the former. 

Published on: Jan 11, 2019
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