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Benevolent Negotiations: Oxymoron For a New Era of Bipartisanship



A common practice in many negotiations is for each party to stake out hard-line, extreme positions, in anticipation of eventually compromising toward a lowest common denominator. While this style of combative negotiations is often necessary -- particularly when the parties have only a one-time issue to resolve without a foreseeable relationship beyond that negotiation -- frequently it is inadvisable. Whereas spousal divorce negotiations and criminal plea bargaining will continue to be viewed as one-time dealings (at least for any particular couple or crime), negotiations in government and business often transpire between parties that can expect to interact with each other on a recurring basis.

When legislators negotiate with each other, or a government regulator negotiates with an organization that is subject to its purview, there is a need to maintain relations beyond the resolution of the issue being considered on that occasion to allow cooperation on future matters. Companies that buy and sell from each other, contract and subcontract with each other, or participate as equals in joint ventures have the potential to do more business together in the future if the experience with each other proves to be mutually beneficial. Even the most difficult discussions between labor and management at a company are very likely to be analogous to merely one page in a long book.

In government in particular, it is necessary to take a long-term view, as that is much more likely to foster greater bipartisanship and collaboration in the future.

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Where a continuing relationship exists, or could exist, the maintenance of a constructive rapport can justify settling for a good bargain rather than taking adversarial positions in an attempt to achieve a windfall.

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The value of having trustworthy, tested, reliable suppliers, buyers, contractors, partners, or workers is invaluable in a world of commerce subject to transient loyalties and unsatisfactory participants. When a relationship that works well is found or developed, it should be nurtured.

Government, beginning with the partisans in Congress, should initiate a similar climate of negotiations based on long-term relationships, rather than on conflict. Although counter-intuitive, benevolent negotiations could fulfill the long-term needs of all parties. Instead of staking out harsh, unpalatable demands and then "nickel and diming" each other toward a settlement, the parties could be better served by putting forth offers of direct appeal to each other's primary needs and requesting the same. All that is required is a relationship, and with it, a modicum of trust. With those elements, the parties can be forthcoming with attractive offers, knowing that the others at the table will do the same.

To even further solidify a positive partnership for the future, as a matter of goodwill, once it is clear that essential needs are satisfied, one side could choose to voluntarily sweeten the pot by offering to the other side additional benefits.

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Taking the initiative to offer additional benefits that one side was not forced to offer the other side, even if minor or tangential, sends a message of appreciation, and will add to a positive climate of constructive accommodation. In essence, a happy buyer / seller / contractor / partner / employee is a good and valuable buyer / seller / contractor / partner / employee.

If this seems antithetical to the present day concept of Congressional negotiation, that is not surprising, because it is. Benevolent negotiations may be closer in its effect to mediation without a mediator, designed to foster long-term productivity and preserve the relationship while hurdling an impasse. It may seem contrary to competitive pursuits and pressures, but in reality, it is only contrary to short-term interests, while, at the same time, advancing long-term interests. It calls upon legislators to resolve disputes through political alchemy.

Of course, the lawyers of each party are likely to get in the way. It is never clear whether that is because it is the lawyers' job or their disposition (which brings to mind the debates over nature versus nurture).

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Many legal objections to such a process can be envisioned. Even if the objections are all overcome, lawyers have a tendency to conjure additional ones in their efforts to take precautions against contingencies and conceivable occurrences. In the process, the well of goodwill is often poisoned, albeit inadvertently.

The objective, though, is to take the emphasis away from those concerns and that tone, and replace it with a focus on mutual long-term benefit. Once again, the beneficiaries would be the American people through more equitable and mutually agreeable public policy.


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