Ronald Reagan was purported to be a wily negotiator. As governor of California, he was once called upon to help break a deadlock between the City of Los Angeles and its bus drivers. The strike threatened to cripple the city.
Reagan flew to Los Angeles and did something very simple. He began by using the bookkeeping approach. The status of the deadlocked talks were tabulated in three steps on a blackboard:
- What issues have been agreed to?
- What issues are still open and undiscussed?
- What issues are in disagreement?
By using the “bookkeeping” technique, Reagan sought to bring clarity to a complicated situation. Writing down the score of settled and unsettled issues may seem simple-minded, but it serves to focus attention on what has been accomplished rather than on points of disagreement. It thus reduces the level of tension felt by both parties.
There are many points that deadlocked parties find easy to agree on. It is well to focus attention on these successes because they breed confidence. The first bookkeeping step was to refocus thinking in a positive direction.
The second step was not difficult or inflammatory. Those issues not yet discussed were listed, with the easiest to settle first and the hardest last.
The third step was to list the areas of disagreement. By doing this, they were forced to focus on the present-what each side was now demanding and what the other was willing to offer-rather than on the history of their conflict.
Step three was designed to overcome the tendency of people to listen poorly to others when their viewpoints differ. By listing each side’s present position in a less threatening setting, much of the heat of their differences was channeled toward finding a solution. Many disagreements melted away, while others seemed less sharp than they had previously been. By starting with disagreements that were easy to settle, they build bridges that helped them to settle the more difficult issues.
The benefit of the bookkeeping technique is that is forces the parties to communicate. It becomes easier to see what concessions each party has made. Positives are accentuated, negatives defused, and it becomes easier to find areas where broad trade-offs are possible.