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Positions or Solutions?

by Stephen Heck



And now with my latest writing and utterance, and with what will [be] near to my latest breath, I here repeat, & would willingly proclaim, my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule � to all political, social and business connections with Yankees, & to the perfidious, malignant, & vile Yankee race. 

 Edmund Ruffin 1794-1865 - Secessionist and States� Rights Advocate  


On April 12, 1861 a bloody Civil War began in the United States when soldiers of the recently formed Confederate States of America began the bombardment of Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.  Edmund Ruffin, a true believer or �fire-eater� for the Confederate cause, allegedly fired off the first round of this traumatic conflict, setting in motion events which still impact us 150 years later. Depending on one�s regional perspective, the War has been called the War of the Rebellion, the War between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression. Whichever name you prefer is not important since the critical issue to understand is that 1861 was preceded by a long period of national and regional rancor that left no outcome other than armed conflict that eventually ranged from New Mexico to Florida. The roots of the War go back to the original Constitutional Convention of 1787 where compromises over the future of slavery left many issues unresolved.  The decade before the War was a particularly bitter and divisive time as secessionists, unionists, slaveholders, and abolitionists each established rigid positions which disallowed any ability to negotiate mutually satisfactory solutions to their differences.  War thus became inevitable because all parties insisted on hard bargaining over position.  How ironic and dismaying that 150 years after the start of this War, civil discourse within the United States has been rapidly accelerating from affinity to acrimony. We need to pause and reconsider what is happening to our unique union of states and resist the baleful legacy of Edmund Ruffin.  Those who believe in communication as a means to malign those with whom they disagree threaten to totally debase the currency of our national dialogue.

Ineffective communications plague our public and private institutions leading to a frustrating inability to solve anything.  Dialogue and negotiation have been reduced to sound bites as exemplified by such childish postulations as: �My way or the highway!�  or �But that�s the way we�ve always done it!�  It�s time to reengineer ourselves and get reacquainted with a communication technique initially introduced to the public in the early 1980s by Roger Fisher and William Ury.  They developed the practice of Principled Negotiation based on their research on the psychology of negotiation and it has been used in a variety of circumstances and countries. For example, this technique was utilized during peace negotiations between Egypt and Israel as well as the Iranian hostage crisis during President Carter�s Administration. This technique determines issues on their merits rather than through a frustrating continuum of quibbling to grandstanding that degenerates into what each side unequivocally says it will and will not do.  Principled Negotiation seeks mutual gains wherever possible and focuses on the merits and most importantly, the people involved in the process. 

Principled Negotiation features four key tenets which have proven successful in countless tense situations where both parties have a history of distrust towards each other.  The first tenet is to Separate the People from the Problem.  We must understand that every person involved in a negotiation process is a human being first and that we must separate the human relationships from the substance of the issues. The second tenet is to Focus on Interests and not Positions.  We become wise in negotiation when we realize that a workable solution harmonizes interests and doesn�t lock in positions.  The third tenet is to Invent Options for Mutual Gain.  We will fail in a negotiation if we continuously search for the single answer so it is critical to broaden the options on the negotiating table to ensure mutual gains.  Our most important challenge is to invent ways for the other negotiating party to make their decisions easier.  The final tenet is to Insist upon Objective Criteria.  We achieve a wise agreement through the development of fair standards and procedures which frame each issue as a mutual search for objective criteria.  We must be logical and reasonable, but firm.  Unfortunately, there are times when Principled Negotiation will simply not work because the other side either is simply too powerful or unwilling to even attempt to reach common ground.  At that point, Fisher and Ury advise that we clearly define our own Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement or your BATNA and move on.

Principled Negotiation does work, and for our divisive times it can facilitate the solving of difficult issues where no easy binary solution exists.  Do we really want to end up like poor Alice at the Mad Hatter�s Tea Party?

�Have you guessed the riddle yet?� the Hatter said.  �No, I give up. What�s the answer?� Alice said.  �I haven�t the slightest idea� said the Hatter.  �Nor I� said the March Hare.  Alice sighed and said:  �I think you might do something better with the time than it in asking riddles that have no answer.�

Stephen J. Heck is a Fellow of The Business Forum Institute.  Steve has extensive experience leading complex, multi-faceted initiatives impacting growth, operating efficiency, and overall financial performance of businesses across diverse sectors including public, private, and not-for-profit organizations. Career achievements include reengineering under-performing business operations, managing Information Technology enterprise system integration and facilitating global business expansion and growth. He has held senior positions with such organizations as WiMAX Forum; Humboldt State University, California; and Metro Regional Government, Portland, Oregon. Steve gained a B.A. from Portland State University; a Masters of Social Work from the University of Washington and a Masters of Public Administration from Portland State University, Oregon. He is a member of the Project Management Institute and IEEE Member, Society on Social Implications of Technology. Since 1996 Steve has been an evaluator with the Prior Learning  Assessment  Program at Marylhurst University in Oregon, and from 1984 to 2000 Steve was  Adjunct Professor in Public Administration at the Hatfield School of Government, Portland State University in Oregon.

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