Incrementalism

Should we be celebrating the fact that Congress finally voted yesterday to allow the federal government to re-open and pay its bills? The bi-partisan agreement to re-open the government merely preserves the status quo for a short period, and leaves open the possibility of another round of brinksmanship very soon. And look what it took to achieve even that! Endless hours of meetings, sending home hundreds of thousands of federal employees, protests, and warnings from business and political leaders around the world of the dire consequences of inaction. None of that gives much reason to celebrate.

Nevertheless, as a mediator I can find something positive about this result, and when I tweeted a message to that effect, another mediator correctly identified the process we were both cheering as incrementalism. The theory of incrementalism holds that getting parties to agree on the small and simple issues helps create movement toward larger agreements. Psychologically, the process works by building trust between warring parties, and also by conditioning parties to enjoy the rewards of small agreements so as to increase their desire to continue to work on more difficult issues. So if Democrats and Republicans in Congress both derive some satisfaction and other benefits from making this small agreement, they might have an easier time making a more lasting agreement in December. That’s a pretty big “if” in this case, but that’s the theory anyway.

Logically incrementalism also works by cutting the legs off of arguments that parties might make to justify continued fighting. If Republicans in this case have been forced to admit that the federal government performs some useful functions and that it would be disastrous to allow a default, that might take some steam out of arguments by the more belligerent members of that caucus that government is always the enemy, or that refusing to raise the debt ceiling is a legitimate tactic.

In other words, it seems there is both a positive and a negative way that parties in conflict can work toward agreement in incremental steps. The positive uses rely on the good feelings aroused among the participants from achieving even small agreements. The negative uses allow each side to use concessions by the other side to foreclose them from continuing the conflict.

                        author

Joe Markowitz

Joseph C. Markowitz has over 30 years of experience as a business trial lawyer.  He has represented clients ranging from individuals and small businesses to Fortune 500 corporations.  He started practicing with a boutique litigation firm in New York City, then was a partner in a large international firm both… MORE >

Featured Mediators

ad
View all

Read these next

Category

Adjacent Possibilities: The Mediator’s Path to Law Firm Transformation

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a step.” Chinese proverb While in Atlanta recently for a weekend getaway, I was attracted to an article in the Atlanta Journal...

By Larry Bridgesmith
Category

When Negotiating Salary, Women are also Negotiating Social Approval

From the Conflict Zen blog by Tammy Lenski.Women, when you’re negotiating salary, business contracts, departmental budgets, auto purchases and the like, figure out a way to imagine yourself as negotiating...

By Tammy Lenski
Category

What Does the Fortune 1,000 Survey on Mediation, Arbitration and Conflict Management Portend for International Arbitration?

Arbitration BlogA new study of dispute resolution practices in Fortune 1,000 corporations shows that many large companies are using binding arbitration less often and relying more on mediated negotiation and...

By Tom Stipanowich

Find a Mediator

X
X
X