Here's how to end the shutdown: change negotiating strategies

Many of us know the story about the two children furiously arguing over an orange, which is being held in the hand of an adult. The kids are yelling and screaming, "It's mine! I want the orange." The adult is perplexed and wants the yelling to stop, so he gladly takes the advice of a friend walking by the scene who suggests a quick and obvious solution: "cut the orange in half." The possessor of the orange does so, quite willingly, and gives each of the children half of an orange. Problem solved, he thinks. Wrong! The kids continue to scream, even escalating the volume now.

What went wrong? The adults went for the obvious compromise — split the orange in half. The problem is that this solution did not really satisfy the interests of either kid. You see, one wanted the skin of the orange to help his parents cook a pie while the other wanted to eat the contents of the orange because he was hungry. The adults never focused on the interests of the parties — I want to eat or cook a pie — only on their positions: I want the orange.


When we can orient our approach to negotiation around interests instead of positions, we can increase the creativity of settlements, which is more likely to satisfy the needs of the parties.

The president and Congress seem to be locked into hard positional bargaining over the wall, instead of interest-based negotiating over border security. In a hard positional bargaining scenario, positions become fixed and harden over time. The bargainer begins to attach her position to her ego. There is little room for compromise because listening to the other side is less compelling than insisting on the righteousness of one's own side. As well, positions are frequently cast in quantitative terms, such as a specific budgetary expression or percentage (e.g., $5 billion for a wall, or withdrawal from 30 percent of occupied territory). Haggling over numbers replaces serious consideration of goals and objectives. As positions harden, the visibility of "common ground" diminishes and eventually disappears.


In interest-based negotiating, on the other hand, the focus of the parties is on finding a solution to a mutually agreed upon concern or objective, or even conflict. The negotiation does not begin with a number, but with a principle — like border security. While both sides have different comprehensions of what this term means, they can move, sometimes slowly, toward building common ground by listening to each other's perceptions and beliefs, and by examining empirical data and scientific evidence that support their side's comprehension. Rarely does one side possess all the truth or all the evidence, but frequently through an honest exploration of each other's interests, a compromise can emerge.

Without the pressure of adhering to a pre-determined course of action or fixed numerical goals, negotiators can find creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems, as occurred between Israel and Egypt, with essential U.S. mediation by President Jimmy Carter and his team, at Camp David during the late 1970s.

It would be helpful to the 800,000 federal employees who are currently in danger of having their lives seriously disrupted if the leaders of our nation would pivot away from hard positional bargaining and move toward interest-based negotiating. "Getting to Yes" will have better advice than will "The Art of the Deal." And while fulfilling a campaign promise might be considered to be a legitimate interest, so are the competing interests of opening the government and achieving meaningful border security.

Finally, the most effective negotiations occur away from public view, in a location conducive to open and even difficult conversation. This was one of the reasons President Carter chose Camp David to conduct the mediation between Israel and Egypt. It is hard to imagine a successful negotiation completed on television.

Michael Eric Siegel is an adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University and the author of "The President as Leader." His email is