Fear in intractable negotiations

In the book we briefly refer to a couple of intractable negotiations (e.g. abortion, climate change, gun control). The purpose is not to take a stand on the issues (we let others do that), but rather to illustrate what techniques might be applied to move both polarised parties in each of these negotiations towards agreement.

One of the techniques described in the book is chunking, where we break a large issue into smaller pieces (see it applied to gun control in this earlier post). This process often results in several pieces that parties find trivial to agree on. This enables progress, and fewer issues remain to be resolved. Whether or not this process results in agreement on all issues is immaterial. The point is that we are much better off than before, when we were deadlocked arguing “yes” or “no” for the giant topic of gun control.

Consistent with the technique of chunking, the Obama administration yesterday announced measures aimed at limiting access to firearms for the mentally ill. Agreement on this piece would benefit everyone and would not negatively affect gun advocates in any material way. Logically we might then expect agreement on the issue.

But we haven’t yet accounted for another important element; fear. Specifically fear of the slippery slope. Gun advocates may fear that agreeing on this option now somehow sets a process in motion that could result in them losing all rights to guns in the future. In other words, that agreeing to anything might mean they have to agree to everything. And when fear is an element in the negotiation, it often trumps everything else.

As negotiators, when we identify fear we also seek to address it. While for the affected person fear is merely a feeling, negotiators know that fear is caused by unmet needs. Often the unmet need is the perceived lack of certainty. People will fear the worst-case scenario because they don’t perceive adequate assurances that the worst-case scenario won’t happen.

So that’s one additional thing that gun advocates need here; assurances that their perceived worst-case scenario won’t happen.

Negotiating gun control

(This is a repost from Filip’s original blog)

In the options toolbox section of the book I share a number of approaches that can each unlock agreement for groups of structurally similar negotiations. We have already shared the path of least risk in relation to the climate change debate. Today we’ll look at another tool; chunking.

As humans we are lazy creatures by nature. We are designed to use mental shortcuts, rules of thumb, and simplifications wherever possible. This allows us to act swiftly in situations of danger. These shortcuts also free up our minds to do other things. But there is one big drawback – we are very prone to come up with oversimplified answers and solutions to complex problems. Without thinking about it, we launch into making a binary decision of “yes/no”, “for/against”, “right/wrong” or “agree/disagree”.

But what happens when we deal with something truly complex, such as the issue of gun control? We predictably end up with two polarized camps that each takes firm, inflexible and incompatible positions on the issue. On the issue of gun control, parties typically bring up completely different arguments. Yet, they keep rushing to a conclusion on one overall decision: e.g. “more or fewer guns” or “more or less restrictive gun policy”. You get the picture.

So what can we do instead? We chunk.

I recall a saying: “Even if we don’t know how to make an angel statue out of granite, we can still start by removing the parts that are obviously not part of the statue”.

Chunking is very similar to this. Let’s pick the sub-issues of gun control that we can obviously and trivially agree on. We may not resolve the entire issue, but we can make progress. Just agreeing on one sub-issue leaves parties better off than the previous stalemate. In fact, just agreeing to look for trivial areas of agreement leaves parties better off, because they are in agreement!

After the recent tragedy in Newton, Connecticut, perhaps the first trivial issue parties can agree on to get the process started is: “Without polluting our discussion with any other issues at this point, can we at least agree that none of us would like to be killed by a gun…?”

And to continue the process of chipping away on the problem, parties may wish to pick the additional chunks that can easily be agreed on. Perhaps we can agree that:

  • Criminals convicted of armed robbery should not be allowed to carry guns, ever.
  • People with specific diagnosed personality or behaviour disorders should not be allowed to carry guns.
  • Gun ownership requires that the gun owner can guarantee that no one else will get access to the gun.

And so on. It is then with an eerie sense of déjà vu that I read yesterday’s issue of The Washington Post:

“A working group led by Vice President Biden is seriously considering measures backed by key law enforcement leaders that would require universal background checks for firearm buyers, track the movement and sale of weapons through a national database, strengthen mental health checks, and stiffen penalties for carrying guns near schools or giving them to minors”