Bob Rack is the Co-Founder of Beyond Civility and the retired Chief Circuit Mediator at the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit


Does it ever make sense to talk to your adversaries before your allies?

Referring to the proposed bi-partisan fix for the Medicare formula, Washington Post blogger Paul Waldman wrote in Lightning May be about to Strike in Congress,  “If you want to understand what political actors are going to do and why, look at the incentives they confront.”

Of course, he’s right. Every student of negotiation understands the importance of accounting for the interests of parties whose agreement you want.

The challenge in a hostile or polarized environment is to learn what the other side really thinks and wants rather than letting your own negative biases drive erroneous and possibly destructive assumptions.

We typically approach difficult negotiations as if preparing for battle– aligning constituents around belief in the righteousness of our positions and critical views of the other side.  As a result, opening communications are weighted with self-serving demands that are likely to draw responses of the same kind.

So maybe the real “lightning strike” occurred when Majority Leader John Boehner reportedly approached Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi before he discussed the idea with his Republican caucus.  Such a meeting, symbolically and practically, could only be exploratory.  One can imagine him asking something like “What would it take, from your perspective, to fix this problem?”

Imagine the effects, the power of starting a difficult political discussion with a genuine question, and listening care-fully for the answer.  Nothing is given, nothing lost.  Just an offer to try to solve a problem the only way it can get solved… together.

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