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Yet Democrats and Republicans remain deeply divided on how those common goals should be achieved and within what period. In a two party system, the airing of such differences of opinion is healthy and instructive.hat happens, however, when the debate turns toxic and the debt ceiling is held hostage?  A gridlock that threatens economic disaster. Even with a final resolution of the debt ceiling crisis, we need to find a better way to deal with stalemating differences. Acrimony and gridlock cost governments the confidence of citizens and respect abroad.

Third party mediation (assisted negotiation) could be the answer.

As our courts have discovered with ADR (alternative dispute resolution), mediation can lead to successful outcomes by structuring process and facilitating “win-win” compromises. 

1. Process. In his 1991 business bestseller Getting to YES, Harvard Professor Roger Fisher showed how negotiators often fail to reach agreement when they lack an effective platform for exploring their respective interests and ways to satisfy them. With an agreed-upon process, a mediator can help Congressional adversaries confine at least most of their verbal sparing to closed sessions, where the focus is on finding solutions instead of posturing. Transparency can be achieved through the regular issuance of joint progress reports.

2. Problem-solving. Within an effective process, a professional mediator facilitates both plenary meetings and separate, confidential “caucuses.” In such sessions, the mediator prompts participants to invent options that could satisfy the needs of all parties. The objective throughout is to achieve a “win-win” outcome. 

During my tenure as Executive Director of the nonprofit Conflict Management Group, I saw first hand how the “getting to yes” approach can benefit all the parties. “Principled negotiation” techniques are especially valuable in mediation. For the mediator can move back and forth among the negotiators, helping them save face as they articulate possible answers to “what if?” questions. The mediator can use ADR skills to encourage the parties to share their underlying interests and explore how the negotiators’ shared and competing interests can be met.

Legislative mediation is not a panacea, but it offers the leaders of both parties an opportunity to tap proven mediation skills in the resolution of major policy differences.

Will it work in a divided Congress? The only way to find out is to try it in practice. 

When they next confront a seemingly intractable policy difference that requires compromise, I propose that Party leaders consider inviting the assistance of an experienced professional mediator, a nonpartisan neutral expert bound to respect confidentiality, to assist the parties resolve their issues. Evaluating that experience, the leaders could then decide whether to invoke it on an ad hoc basis going forward. 

Repeated successes might even prompt lawmakers to create a Legislative Mediation Unit that would make one or two professional mediators available to them upon request.

As the debt ceiling debate has shown, we need a better process for inter-party negotiation and more effective techniques to avoid governmental meltdowns in the future. Legislative mediation is worth a try.

L. Michael Hager is the former executive director of Conflict Management Group, a nonprofit organization based in Cambridge, Mass.