A Mediator’s Take on the U.S. Stalemate

Toronto Star – Toronto, Ont.
Author: Nicki Thomas Date:
Jul 28, 2011

Democrats and Republicans are dead locked over how to raise the country’s $14.3 trillion (U.S.) debt ceiling before an Aug. 2 deadline. With both sides at an impasse, the Toronto Star asked Allan Stitt, a Toronto-based mediator and arbitrator who lectures on conflict resolution, for some insight into high-stakes negotiations.

Q. Is this one of the worst examples of a stalemate that you’ve ever seen?
A. “It’s one of the worst because the impact is so severe,” Stitt said. The gridlock has caused the U.S. dollar to fall and threatens to damage the country’s credit rating. But, Stitt said, stalemates like this happen all the time. “They are very common because both sides are trying to out-think the other side in terms of what they’ll be willing to do and when they’ll be willing to cave.”

Q. What drives a situation like this?
A. Stitt said it often gets to the point where both sides could theoretically say Yes to what the other side is offering but each thinks they can cause the other side more pain by holding out. “They believe that if (they) holdout a bit longer, the other side is going to cave,” he said, adding that in moments of honesty, they might admit they would be better off accepting what the other side has to offer.

Q. So how do you break through that?
A. Mediators always look for ways their clients can save face while getting what they really want -rather than what they say they want – without forcing them to go to the other side’s position. That’s the best-case scenario and a solution that’s so often open to people and they don’t explore it,” Stitt said. More commonly, both sides end up making concessions until they hit middle ground. “People start to realize that they’re hurting everybody and in this case, they’re hurting an entire country by continuing to be obstinate.”

Q. Is there any way for the two sides in the U.S. to save face?
A. “Definitely,” Stitt said, but they have to get creative. If both sides could get together privately, with a promise that discussions would not be leaked to the media, they could talk honestly about what they really want and need.

Q. Do you think it’s more likely they’ll start making concessions instead?
A. “Unfortunately, the practical reality is they just start giving on issues,” he said, adding that the real problem is posturing from both sides. “Nobody really knows which issues are really important to either side because they’re all pretending that every issue is extremely important.”

Q. What are some of the other classic mistakes made in negotiations?
A. “They get caught up in their own rhetoric” Stitt said.” Over time, they become so entrenched in their positions that it becomes a matter of principle and they’re unwilling to budge, he said. “That’s really what’s happening here”.

Q. This is a pretty juicy negotiation. Would you like to be stuck in the middle of this?
A. “The truth is, I would,” Stitt said. “Maybe it’s the eternal optimist in me but I do believe that there are creative ways to overcome some of these difficulties. Sometimes you need someone in the middle to take the pressure on them instead of on the parties.”

Skip to content