Congress in Splitsville? Marriage Counselors and Conflict Experts Have Tips

PHOTO: A furloughed federal employee holds a sign on the steps to the U.S. Capitol after the U.S. Government shut down last night, on Capitol Hill in Washington on October 1, 2013.
Larry Downing/Reuters

Watching Congress these days is a lot like witnessing a perpetually quarrelling couple on the brink of divorce, or toddlers throwing temper tantrums on the playground because they don't want to share the monkey bars.

With Democrats and Republicans repeatedly hitting impasse after impasse, most recently over the debt ceiling and government shutdown, how can they make nice and get along?

Experts in the field of conflict resolution -- corporate consultants, school teachers and marriage counselors -- have some sage advice on how to bury the hatchet and bring harmony back to hearth and Hill.

Dr. Susan Heitler, Marriage Counselor and Psychologist

What Congress is going through "parallels that of a divorcing couple," Heitler said. "In healthy relationships, both sides look at each other respectfully, so they listen to understand each other and then as they understand each other's concerns, they look to be responsive."

"By contrast, what we have is contempt, a negative dismissive attitude of each side toward the other's. That leads to a locking into positional bargaining, or 'Here's my plan of action. I'm not listening to anything else or hearing you.' That's essentially a narcissistic mode. 'I want what I want and don't care what you want.'"

"Both sides have to say 'I'm willing to try something different.' The key is both sides, otherwise you get a divorce."

Kristie Nixon, First-Grade teacher, Smyrna, Ga.

As someone surrounded by 6-year-olds all day, Nixon knows all too well that kids often have a hard time making compromises.

"I have a little girl who wanted to go on the monkey bars every day during recess, and we talked about how she cannot be on the monkey bars every day, even though she really loves them," Nixon said. "We tried to come up with a compromise of every other day, and she didn't really like that idea but said, 'What if I play every day but not for the whole recess?' So we came up with a solution that way."

"I don't think all children automatically know how to communicate. It's a learned skill," Nixon said. "We teach children how to talk to one another and be kind when resolving problems with one another. We tell children to start off with telling the other person how they upset you or how you felt when this happened and what you would like to see happen in the future so they can offer a solution to the problem as well and not just state the problem."

"So I think we need to learn to listen one another because we don't do enough of that in Congress. We need to lead by example. We try to teach kids to do that but are not doing it as a country," Nixon said.

Jim Murphy, founder of After Burner Corporate Team Building

"Whether I'm working with an NFL team or Fortune 500 company, it all starts with getting teams to agree on things. In order to have enough trust to collaborate in the open it requires strong leadership, and it requires a leader that has the ability to hold team members accountable," Murphy said.

"Whether we're talking about Republicans or Democrats, you've got teams within teams within teams," Murphy said. "It's basically individuals acting individually."

"They need to form teams that are lined up around objectives or initiatives that are produced through collaborative sessions," Murphy said. "You need alignment and individual accountability. If we can't get aligned then we will stay at a stalemate."

Carol Rice, co-owner of Conflict Resolution Academy, Atlanta, Ga.

"Unfortunately they violated every principle of the basics of conflict resolution. The three principles were all violated: That people need to be treated with respect, need to feel heard, and they need honest consideration of all ideas. They violated every one of them," Rice said. "Are we surprised there was a government shutdown?"

"The basic thing is they could not come to agreement because the need to save face is more important than anything they could get out of an agreement. They need to be able to walk out the door and say 'Look what we're going to do.'"

"Every dispute is based on loss or the potential of loss, and is about stopping the loss, lessening the loss, or getting back what was lost. So they need to find ways to get that back. To identify what they need, because there's always a need, and there's always more than one way to meet a need, they have to create options."

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