'Resolving political conflict requires a deep understanding of how our minds work in times of conflict': an interview with Professor Daniel Shapiro

Headshot of Professor Daniel Shapiro
This interview was conducted by Vitor Pamplona and originally published in Portuguese by Nexo Jornal (‘Saber como as mentes operam ajuda a superar crises políticas’)

Overcoming scenarios of institutional crisis requires a method of negotiation and demonstrations of empathy between political actors. This the view of psychologist Daniel Shapiro, Founder and Director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, who has worked with diplomats in the Middle East, Asia and Europe in order to work through apparent deadlocks that threaten to stall countries and societies.

Aware of the political instability of the Jair Bolsonaro government, Shapiro believes that to resolve crises like the one faced by Brazil, it is necessary to understand the feelings behind the clashes. In the book “Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts” – the Portuguese edition of which, “Negociando o inegociável: como resolver conflitos que parecem impossíveis” (Globo Livros), was recently published – Shapiro defends the idea that situations of confrontation, whether in politics, the business world, or between friends and families, carry a high dosage of emotion that can lead to “vertigo”, which is when the parties involved are unable to think about solutions because they’re only thinking about the conflict in of itself.

Shapiro contends that it’s necessary to be conscious of this emotional component and utilize negotiation tactics that might include behind the scenes conversations between aids and informal meetings between representatives of the rival parties. The first step towards escaping what he calls the “divisive mindset” is to approach the negotiation with the objective of thinking up ideas of mutual benefit.

In this interview with Nexo, conducted by e-mail, Shapiro highlights that in cases in which democracy is at risk, all sides should work to avoid scenarios in which attempts at dialogue are transformed into political battles. But there is a caveat: “Not everything can-or should-be negotiated. Sometimes political advocacy is a better way to go”. The full interview is available below:

What type of negotiation is needed in more or less polarized political scenarios such as in Brazil or in the U.S.?

There are two issues at hand: one is psychological, the other is tactical. The most important psychological part of breaking out of polarization is to shift to a new mindset. In times of polarization, our mind tricks us into thinking that politics is a purely zero-sum game. It’s us versus them. This adversarial mindset – which I call the “tribes effect” in the book – makes for a lot of lopsided decisions, resentment, and political impasse. Even when there are great possible deals that can benefit everyone, they don’t’ tend to happen because of this divisive mindset. I believe leaders have a lot of power to help society break free of this mindset. The approach: remind everyone that—while there are strong political differences—everyone is part of the same national project. Astronauts put it well when they remind us that “we’re all in it together.” People can still argue and debate politics – even with a lot of emotional intensity---but to secure the national fabric requires everyone to do so within a narrative of a collective sense of identity, a national sense of “we-ness.” Otherwise, politics can balkanize society and shake its political foundations.

At a tactical level, there is another big problem with polarization. To engage in political negotiations across political groups often is seen as taboo. Political parties fear that interacting with “the other side” makes them look weak and traitorous. There are a lot of tactical ways to address this problem. For example, political leaders can negotiate “behind the scenes,” outside the public eye. But this is risky, because if they get “caught,” their own constituents may accuse them of sleeping with the enemy. Another approach is for political leaders to empower their key advisors to meet informally with equal-status representatives from other parties to brainstorm creative policies for mutual gain. A lot of the work we do at the Harvard International Negotiation Program is in this spirit. We facilitate dialogue sessions between senior advisors of opposing political parties, helping them to develop creative policy ideas that are useful simultaneously to each political party. There’s almost no risk in this process, because decision making authority still resides with the political leaders. The upside is great: political leaders end up with value-enhancing ideas. Everyone wins. This may sound utopian, but I’ve witnessed the power of this process even in my work in the turbulent sphere of political negotiations in the Middle East.

What does the method you advocate for have to offer to resolve political conflicts?

Resolving political conflict requires a deep understanding of how our minds work in times of conflict. Over the past thirty years, my research has unearthed powerful, hidden psychological dynamics that drive people to fight – even when it’s not in their rational interest. By understanding these forces, we can better understand what is causing these conflicts – and how to resolve them. Incidentally, my research has shown that a lot of these emotional forces are at play not just in political conflicts –but even in our personal conflicts with family members and friends. I recently taught my book’s framework to senior diplomats in the Middle East. Among other things, I talked about what I call “vertigo” – the experience of getting consumed in a conflict situation to the extent we can’t think about anything but the conflict. These diplomats immediately saw the utility of noticing this dynamic before it sidetracks political dialogue. And what made me smile was when one of them looked at me and said, “Ah, that’s exactly the dynamic that my wife and I get into every time we argue!” We spent the next fifteen minutes examining strategies for breaking free of marital vertigo!

How is it possible to convince someone who doesn't seem willing to talk and negotiate?

There are many contexts where this problem happens. I’ve consulted with hostage negotiators, and in those kinds of situations, the hostage taker is sometimes reluctant to talk at first. Building rapport becomes an essential skill – starting with small talk, nonjudgmental, with a lot of open questions that are curious and supportive, but that concede nothing at a material level.

A wholly different type of context is when opposing political groups refuse to talk with one another. A lot of the international work I do falls into this category. How do you get Israeli and Palestinian leaders to talk, when a large proportion of each side’s constituents view cross-group dialogue as betrayal? One way to deal with this kind of dilemma is to convene representatives from each side for training programs in negotiation. The parties get to know one another, but the purpose of their meeting is not formally political. They have full discretion to decide whether they want to talk, to listen, to connect. Rather than pressuring them to have political dialogue, they have much more freedom to communicate if it feels right, if it meets their interests and those of groups they care about. This is really the essence of trust, a prerequisite to negotiating when the stakes are high.

What concessions must left-wing and right-wing parties and leaders make when preserving democracy is at stake?

When democracy is at stake, that’s a problem that every party (arguably) should care about. So the question is how to deal with that problem without it becoming a purely partisan battle. One way is to have a credible, neutral third party convene associates from the various political parties to diagnose risks to a stable democracy, and then to think together about mutually advantageous avenues for strengthening democracy. Rather than the political discourse centering on demands and concessions, parties jointly come to understand risks, constraints, and opportunities. The process itself becomes democracy-enhancing, rather than a new symptom of polarization.

What can one do when trying to negotiate becomes pointless?

Before you walk into your next important negotiation, think carefully about your walk-away alternative. What will you do if you don’t come to an agreement with the other side? When I work with business and political leaders, we will often spend hours brainstorming possible walk-away alternatives. At first, people often say, “I don’t have any good alternatives to negotiating with the other side!” But lo and behold, after an hour of brainstorming, they dream up incredible ideas that they can do on their own to satisfy their political interests – ideas that do not require a “yes” from the other side. This is real power in negotiation, because they now can walk into the negotiation being tougher on achieving their interests. Why? Because they have a strong walk-away alternative. A simple example. My wife recently needed a new car. Before I went to the dealer with the car she loved the most, I went to a dealership twenty minutes further away and negotiated a price on a similar car. I then went back to the first dealer and negotiated. I was able to be more forceful now, because I had a good walk-away alternative. The dealer relented, we got the car my wife wanted at a competitive price, and best of all: my wife was happy with the outcome.

What is the limit of negotiation in politics?

Not everything can-or should-be negotiated. Sometimes political advocacy is a better way to go. Fight politically for what you believe in. But do so within the boundaries of mutually defined democratic principles and norms that foster participation. That said, I think political polarization can lead to inferior political outcomes. If parties join together to better understand each other’s interests and invent ideas of mutual benefit, society as a whole can reap more value—not to mention each of the political parties as well. This suggests to me that political leaders – while typically savvy negotiators – may benefit from becoming equipped with some of the cutting-edge new methods of negotiation to further advance their interests and that of society.


See also: Brazil Studies