I put together a set of notes from which to speak at the symposium today – some I may have used, some not, but here’s the opening with the “provocative” statement that I was supposed to make to kick things off. The full set of notes is attached as a .pdf lower on the page, after the opening comments.
The obvious place to start thinking about comments and discussions surrounding a topic like “The Art of Compromise” is with the definition of the word compromise itself. As I began this process, I have to confess I was struck by the wisdom of a comment made by Edward Charles Francis Publius de Bono (a Maltese scholar responsible for the term “lateral thinking”):
“. . . words are encyclopedias of ignorance because they freeze perceptions at one moment in history and then insist we continue to use these frozen perceptions . . . .”
The more I thought about compromise, and our charge to come up with something provocative to say about compromise, the more I realized that there is not a thing called compromise – there are many possible definitions – and I realized that I needed to not worry so much about how my colleagues from history or psychology would define compromise.
I needed to worry about how theorists and practitioners from the world of conflict engagement would define and use the term and the fact of compromise.
To start, I asked several of my colleagues and friends to do a word association game with me – I said the word “compromise” and I asked them to give me the first word that popped into their heads. Now, I have to admit that the first one really surprised me. I said, “compromise,” and she said, “Butte, Montana.” After thinking about it for a moment, I said, “I have to ask, what does Butte, Montana, have to do with compromise.” “Oh,” she said. “I thought you said “copper mine. Never mind.” I felt like I was back on SNL with Roseanne Roseannadanna.
The responses from those who didn’t focus on copper mines were interesting. Here’s a sample: Sharing, Surrender, Failure, Defeat, Not Ideal, Positional, Win-Lose, Split-the-Baby.
In short, none of my colleagues had what I would call an overwhelmingly positive immediate reaction to the concept of compromise. Why is this? It’s in the DNA of conflict engagement theory.
Practically all of the literature on Dispute Resolution/Conflict Resolution/Conflict Engagement (you should get an idea that a field that can’t even decide what to call itself may not be the best place to go to talk about definitions) stresses the pursuit of INTERESTS, not POSITIONS, and part of the field (Transformative) avoids leading the parties to either compromise or consensus.
But the most interesting thing to me is not the negative view of compromise, but the fact that, for the most part, when we talk about compromise, we have it all wrong – what we label compromise is not compromise at all.
I’m supposed to start things off quickly with a provocative statement, so, notwithstanding de Bono’s observation, let me just say that my colleagues have got it all wrong – when they talk about compromise, most of the time they are not talking about compromise at all – and just as an example, the 3/5′s “compromise” that Professor Finkleman referenced last night at the keynote had absolutely nothing to do with compromise.
For a full set of notes, click here: NOTES