Conflict Resolution

Advanced Problem-Solving Strategies

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Here is a portion of a 60 Minutes interview with incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner, who explains why he thinks “compromise” is a dirty word:

J. BOEHNER: We have to govern. That’s what we were elected to do.

STAHL (on camera): But governing means compromising.

J. BOEHNER: It means working together. It means find…

STAHL: It also means compromising.

J. BOEHNER: It means finding common ground.

STAHL: OK, is that compromising?

J. BOEHNER: I made clear I am not going to compromise on — on my principles, nor am I going to compromise…

STAHL: What are you saying?

J. BOEHNER: … the will of the American people.

STAHL: And you’re saying I want common ground, but I’m not going to compromise. I don’t understand that. I really don’t.

J. BOEHNER: When you say the — when you say the word “compromise”…

STAHL: Yeah?

J. BOEHNER: … a lot of Americans look up and go, “Uh-oh, they’re going to sell me out.” And so finding common ground I think makes more sense.

STAHL (voice-over): I reminded him that his goal had been to get all the Bush tax cuts made permanent.

(on camera): So you did compromise?

J. BOEHNER: I’ve — we found common ground.

STAHL: Why won’t you say — you’re afraid of the word.

J. BOEHNER: I reject the word.

Lesley Stahl may not understand the distinction Boehner is trying to make, but I think a lot of mediators would.  As I discussed in a prior post, many participants in negotiations instinctively recoil from the very idea of compromise.  To compromise means to sacrifice one’s principles.  It means taking less than one is entitled to.  It means giving up on the very idea of finding justice.  To find consensus or common ground, on the other hand, means identifying the degree to which both side’s interests can be satisfied.  It means finding areas where you and the other side might agree.  It means finding a solution that achieves a better result for both sides than the alternative of continued conflict.

One of the reasons that the tax cut deal hammered out by the White House and Congressional Republicans was viciously attacked from both the right and the left was that it was seen as a compromise of fundamental principles.  Those who favored the agreement, on the other hand, saw it instead as a means of satisfying each side’s interests, at the expense of  having to agree to satisfy the other side’s interests.

I don’t know what kind of a Speaker John Boehner is going to turn out to be, but I think he is making a useful distinction that could enable him to serve the interests of his most principled constituents, while at the same time allowing him to make agreements with the opposition that have the potential of getting things done.