“If you want to get along,
                  You have to go along”        

                                                                                        –  Sam Rayburn, 43rd Speaker 

                                                                                          US House of Representatives

Considering the activities of the past week in Washington, we can again revisit the phrase, “Half of knowing what something is, is knowing what it’s not.”  With this in mind, let’s consider the idea of compromise, finding a middle ground, or whatever you want to call it.  Washington is polarized, as it seems is much of the rest of the nation.  There is no shortage of finger-pointing, name-calling, and a general distrust among those who sit on opposite sides of the aisle.  As the campaign season gets underway these ideas are being reinforced as candidates on both sides rally supporters and vilify others who would dare think that there is but one “true” political belief system that will save our country.  It would seem that American politics is broken.  It has become a no-compromise, winner-take-all game; one that is a true threat to the health of our democracy!

David Moss is the John G. McLean Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. His post, “Fixing What’s Wrong With US Politics” considers the impact of political polarization that is now so evident in Washington and across our nation.  He shares research on the American political system that shows Congress to now be more divided than ever, pulled apart by two significantly differing visions of the role government should play in a free society.  However, the problem is more significant than differing philosophical stances, it is behavioral; we have forgotten how to compromise, how to draw the best from differing ideas to create something that works better…. “Look closely at U.S. history, and you’ll see that deep philosophical differences aren’t new and that some of the most ideologically charged periods produced important policy advances, often delivering the best ideas from both sides.  In fact, America’s economic success may be partly attributable to this best-of-both dynamic.”

Moss doesn’t hesitate to place the blame squarely on Washington, “The real problem with American politics is the growing tendency among politicians to pursue victory above all else—to treat politics as war—which runs counter to basic democratic values and may be crippling Washington’s ability to reach solutions that capture the smartest thinking of both camps.”  I believe there is a bigger problem, the non-compromising, win at all costs mentality, has now spilled over into our general way of life. Compromise is often viewed as a weakness, when in fact it can be our greatest strength; demonstrated by the simple Covey action of seeking first to understand.  

John Baldoni, is a leadership coach and author of  Moxie:  The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership.   His take on compromise is a little different than most.  He believes that too many of us consider compromise as something negative, as an abandonment of our principles or beliefs, when in reality a willingness to compromise is a sign of great conviction: the conviction that something bigger than us comes first.  It’s accomplished initially by leaving our ego in the parking lot; as too often the power of our beliefs prevent us from listening, examining, and considering ideas which anchor our current positions. From this point on it comes down to a simple face-to-face conversation led by four questions:

  • Can you tell me more about…..?

  • Why do you feel that way?

  • How would you suggest we do it better?

  • Can you help me to understand the issue more clearly?

Conversations like this enable individuals to share perspectives and suggestions in an environment that promotes discussion and relationships.  While there is no guarantee of compromise or a meeting of the minds, it should lead to deeper levels of understanding and respect; which in turn lay the foundation for mutual trust; something that will make compromise much easier in the future.  

In his biography of John Adams, biographer David McCullough noted that our “founding fathers” such as Adams and Jefferson recognized the importance of compromise. They engaged in it avidly, and sometimes contentiously, while in public office, but they always respected each other.  The willingness to engage in debate, compromise for the greater good and demonstrate respect for those with whom we differ is a hallmark of American democracy. Perhaps it’s time for all of us to revisit those values.