This month, disapproval of Congress hit an all-time high — The New York Times reports that 82 percent of Americans give Congress the thumbs-down. Both parties get low marks, so the general disgust can't be attributed only to ideology. What the poll should call attention to is something more fundamental, a basic competency we expect our leaders to possess when they go to Washington: the ability to negotiate.
Many members of Congress used to work in the private sector, where business people negotiate successfully every day. Yet this summer, congressional leaders showed themselves to be clumsy deal-makers, leading the country closer to the brink of economic crisis with every contentious meeting and press conference they conducted.
Now, with the nation's debt ceiling raised and the media finished declaring the winners and losers, our attention turns to the bipartisan "super committee" tasked with the heavy lifting — crafting a deal to cut $2.1 trillion out of the budget over the next 10 years. If these committee members practice the same tactics used in the first round of the debate, we may well see a repeat of this summer's debacle. Let's hope the men and women of this committee will this time heed the basic tenets of sound negotiating strategy.
My cardinal rule of negotiations is that to get what your side wants, you must help the other side get what it wants. Failure to do so almost always leads to a breakdown in talks, because both sides will quickly lock into intransigent positions. Sound familiar? Gridlock is an inevitable result when each side knows in great detail what it wants, but doesn't comprehend and respect the goals of the opposition. Without an appreciation for an adversary's demands, negotiations cannot really begin.
Second, negotiating is a process, not an event. Sadly, Congress turned the debt ceiling debate into political theater. Members crafted and delivered speeches full of clever sound bites, fear tactics and statistics meant to sway the public into embracing their positions. They wrote opinion pieces that might have satisfied like-minded people but did little to advance the process. They talked and talked — but rarely listened. Most importantly, they failed to ask their adversaries the questions (and listen for the answers) that would have led to earlier opportunities for give-and-take.
Finally, negotiating cannot end successfully when the goal is "winner-take-all." The goal of each party must be that its side wins big and the other side also wins big — just not quite as big. Both sides need to save face and be able to go back to their constituents saying, "We did pretty well here — this was a complex situation that involved a lot of compromise, but we won on the issues that really matter."
An oft-cited example of a successful negotiating strategy at a critical time is President John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. With pressure to avoid a nuclear war with the Soviet Union and not sacrifice either our country's security or its reputation as a superpower, Kennedy relied upon his team of national security advisors to evaluate not only what actions our country could take, but also what the other side would do in response. After careful evaluation, the president ordered a blockade to keep Soviet missiles from entering Cuba and demanded that the Soviets remove what was already in place.
As a result, all three sides — the U.S., the Soviets and Cuba's Fidel Castro — publicly escalated their threats. Secretly, though, the two world leaders managed to hammer out a compromise that led to both sides declaring victory, at least among their own people. In the end, President Kennedy told the American people that he was successful in forcing the Soviets to remove their missile systems from Cuba, thereby securing our country against potential nuclear war. And Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev left the negotiating table with news for his citizenry that U.S. missiles in Italy and Turkey would be removed, thereby mitigating the threat of a U.S. nuclear assault.
Our leaders in Washington have much to learn not only from history, but also the example we now have from last month on Capitol Hill. The tea party's intransigence is often cited as a prime factor in the impasse. Certainly, intransigence is deadly to productive talks. But the Democrats have done harm, too, by repeatedly going on television to blame the tea party. Such finger-pointing doesn't bode well.
Hopefully the "super committee" members will heed the advice of the ancient Greek scholar Epictetus: "Nature has given men one tongue, but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak." Now is the time to listen.
Ronald M. Shapiro, founder of the law firm Shapiro Sher Guinot & Sandler and Shapiro Negotiations Institute, is the author of three books on negotiating strategy, including "Dare to Prepare: How to Win Before You Begin" and "The Power of Nice: How to Negotiate So Everyone Wins-Especially You!" His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.