The science of the deal: A negotiation expert explains how Trump and the Democrats could both end the shutdown with a win

Donald Trump and congressional Democrats are stuck in a negotiation stalemate that is preventing an end to the government shutdown.

Trump wants a wall, but Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer refuse to support funding for a physical barrier – positions they recently reiterated while addressing the nation in primetime. Currently, both sides are operating in a manner that often prevents deals from getting made.

Understanding how people influence each other is central to my research and teaching as a management professor at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business. In essence, I study the science, rather than the art, of the deal.

This work shows why the shutdown continues and how both sides could walk away with a win.

Positions versus interests

Research on negotiation highlights the importance of distinguishing between positions and interests.

Positions are the initial demands or starting points from which both sides typically need to move for an agreement to be reached. Interests, on the other hand, are the underlying motives for positions – the reasons people make demands in the first place.

When parties to a negotiation focus on positions, they often reach an impasse. Why? Because there really is only one way to satisfy a position – you either get what you asked for or you don’t.

Workers replace sections of the border wall in Tijuana, Mexico. AP Photo/Gregory Bull

Putting positions first

A focus on positions is evident in the negotiation to end the partial government shutdown – and why it may soon become the longest in American history.

Each side’s position is clear: wall or no wall. President Trump has demanded that a bill to reopen the government include more than US$5 billion for a physical barrier along the southern border of the United States. Conversely, Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Schumer insist that although they would consider providing money for increased border security they will not provide funding for a wall.

In negotiations research, this is referred to as a competitive approach to bargaining in which the two sides “take firm, opposing stances, cling tightly to them and stubbornly refuse to concede.”

This is a “win-lose” or “zero-sum” approach in which any gains for one party come at a direct cost to the other party.