Negotiation of Values and the Fiscal Cliff

Want to excel in a negotiation? Understand the other party’s values. I’m not talking about monetary value, but rather those beliefs about our reality that we hold most dear.

What do I mean?

Let’s look at the fiscal cliff negotiations:

We can all agree on…

When negotiating, both the Democrats and Republicans ultimately want the fiscal solvency of our country. They also want long-term economic growth, lower unemployment and people back to work. At a high level, these values align. I think most of us would also agree on that.

While at one level, the fiscal talks are about money, in reality they are about values. Deeply held beliefs about how much money people (citizens) should be required to pay into the government, from what activities, and then how that money gets spent by the government.

The conflict ensues as each person, and thus each political party, begins to assign their own meaning to abstract terms like “fiscal solvency” and “economic growth”. For some, fiscal solvency means a balanced budget, while for others it means running a deficit at a percentage of GDP. Even within those factions there are people that disagree on what the size of that balanced budget or the percentage of GDP should be.

As discussions move from high layers of abstraction down to defining what each of these terms mean in concrete reality, people’s values start to collide.

Where Conflict Arises

Think of this process as a funnel. At the top of the funnel there are abstract concepts that all parties can agree on. As you move down the funnel you move from the abstract and get clearer on what those concepts actually mean to the people involved. It’s a distillation process, and at the very bottom are the actual terms of the deal that are reached.

The further down the funnel you go, the more clashing values there are that pop-up from all parties involved. That’s why things tend to heat-up the closer you get to an agreement. It’s people’s values bumping up against each other as the talks move to concrete things like who gets to foot the bill for our national spending.

Additionally, parties typically link both related and non-related issues to the negotiation as a tactic to strengthen their overall power. This is why we see things like the debt ceiling coming up in conversations. While this can be effective in some circumstances, often it convolutes things and increases the tension.

Don’t Touch MY Money

On the surface, its easy to say that these conflicts are between the President, Congress, Democrats and Republicans. But they’re not. Our elected officials are all just actors in the roles we put them in.

The actual conflict of values is between each of us. Its our individual values as voters that sent these people to Washington to handle our problems for us. The problem is, most of these issues are just too abstract, except for the elements that impact us directly. Very few people understand what the difference between an $800B deficit and a $1 trillion deficit means for the country (arguably, no one really knows). People just think, yeah we gotta fix that, but damn it, don’t touch my social security or raise my taxes. 

Until we as Americans sit down with each other to have these conversations and begin to align our own values. Then the shell game will continue.

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