by Steve Adubato, PhD

As I write this column, a battle rages in Washington on whether or not the federal government will increase the debt ceiling limit by an August 2nd deadline. The debt ceiling has been raised over 100 times in the past and according to most experts, this is critical to allow the federal government to continue to borrow money and pay its bills. If not, our government could default on its loans. That’s a pretty bad thing.

In many ways, this dicey scenario is a classic negotiating challenge. It’s a game of chicken for many who ask if the other guy is going to blink first, and once he blinks, did he blink long and hard enough in order for one party or the other to declare a victory?

It happens all the time, and it involves a whole range of complex communication issues. It happens in business, in office politics, in marriages and among families and friends. But there is a serious catch to this toxic negotiating climate. In fact, several conditions must be in place in order for effective communication which ultimately achieves a reasonable compromise. Those include the following:

--Keep your eye on the negotiating prize. Remember what the ultimate goal is. In an intact marriage, or a couple going through a divorce, agreeing on what that “prize” is and staying focused on it, can be a deal breaker. Consider this. In a divorce negotiation, if one party believes the ultimate goal is to minimize the adverse impact on the children, while the other partly believes this, but is constantly distracted because he or she is angry over how the marriage ended and wants to inflict pain on the other party, nothing good happens. It is so easy to lose track of the bigger picture because the “little things” can be so frustrating that they take us off track and cause us to communicate in counterproductive ways.

--Have the same ultimate goal. When considering the debt ceiling issue, one would assume that all parties would want to avoid the federal government defaulting on our loans. However, if one party decides that it is more valuable to publically embarrass the other party, the negotiation stalls. Further, if one party decides that they are willing to risk the government defaulting in order to demonstrate perceived strength or clout by resisting compromise, again, the negotiation fails. The key in any successful negotiation is for all parties to agree that even though they have different agendas, that there is one ultimate goal that is essential to achieve.

--Be open minded and listen. In countless negotiations, one party will come up with an excellent idea which falls on deaf ears because the other party is unable or unwilling to listen—not because they don’t agree, but because they are blinded by their negative feelings toward the messenger. If both parties aren’t truly LISTENING with an open mind, the negotiation will fall flat.

--Have a clear, unambiguous deadline. With the debt ceiling, the deadline is apparently August 2. While everyone involved has known this, some parties apparently believe that it is a flexible deadline. That it can be extended without much risk. If all parties in a negotiation don’t agree on a hard deadline, they are not inclined to communicate in a positive and constructive fashion. Further, in an open-ended negotiation, there is no sense of urgency to “get the deal done” and to negotiate in good faith. In fact, for some, the objective is to drag things out in the hopes that it will wear the other party down. Sometimes that strategy works, but often it’s playing Russian roulette.