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Negotiation expert says Trump, Democrats just need to get over the wall

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, shown with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer by her side, has taken a strong position on President Trump’s wall proposal, calling it an “immorality.” Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images

An expert on negotiations says one key to resolving the shutdown crisis is for the two sides to stop negotiating over their positions on the border wall and instead look deeper — to each other’s true interests.

Joshua N. Weiss, senior fellow at the Harvard Negotiation Project and director of the master’s program in leadership and negotiation at Bay Path University, says positions are what each side says it wants, while interests are what each side really wants. Positions can be likened to the tip of an iceberg, while interests are the rest of the iceberg.

The Democrats and Trump, deadlocked over President Trump’s defiant demand for a wall on the southern border, are “engaged in a positional negotiation, and this has become about the wall, not about the underlying interests, which is about immigration and immigration reform,” he said.


He said one solution would be to shift the conversation from the single issue of the wall to a “grander bargain” that would address immigration and border security, issues that both sides say they are concerned about, in a “smart, thoughtful manner.”

“There’s a million ways to do this. The problem is people are dug in around the positional piece,” he said.

If the negotiation became broader, the opportunity opens up for each side to save face, which is crucial, he said.

“There’s going to have to be some way in which Democrats go back to their base and say, ‘Hey, look at the things we got here that we’ve wanted for a while,’ ” and the same goes for Trump, Weiss said.

President Trump.Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

“I think the way you get there is by expanding the number of issues that are involved,” he said. “I think that’s the way everybody says, ‘We got what we wanted.’ ”

“Most people get stuck and give up instead of making that shift” to a more comprehensive approach, he said.


Weiss noted that there is another possible face-saving way out for both parties: dropping the negotiations completely — and referring the issues to a bipartisan group or outside think tank that would develop a plan.

“The president and the Democrats would have to agree upfront that whatever was presented would be binding and they would have to live with it,” he said.

Assuming Trump and the Democrats continue to try to hash out a deal, Weiss offered another tip for how to make progress: The two sides should stop talking in public about the negotiations.

“As much as they can, they’ve got to get this out of the public eye,” he said. The two sides should announce, “We’re going to take this negotiation behind closed doors and we’re not going to talk about this publicly unless we have something to say,” he said.

That would alleviate the outside pressure on them, he said, noting that their statements are “basically trapping them into certain positions . . . preventing them from being creative.”

Negotiation experts talk about the necessity of knowing your BATNA, an acronym for “best alternative to a negotiated agreement.”

In this case, Weiss said, both sides appear to feel that their BATNAs are better than an agreement.

“They’re gaining more by holding firm than they would by reaching a deal and maybe being accused of compromising,” he said.

But he also observed, “The longer this process goes on, the BATNA’s going to change, it’s going to shift.” For example, if enough Republicans eventually joined Democrats in supporting funding legislation that it would pass over Trump’s veto and end the shutdown, Trump would suddenly have a much stronger motivation to reach an agreement.


The suggestions might seem common-sense, Weiss said. “But when people are locked into destructive negotiations, they often lose the forest for the trees, which is what is happening here. On some level, they have lost sight of their objectives because of the escalation of the situation.”