Carter: Lessons in Compromise and Negotiation

How many of you are familiar with the name of Henry Clay?  He was a Whig Party Senator from Kentucky and is possibly best remembered as the one who crafted the Great Compromise of 1850.  In that agreement a number of states agreed to positions over which they had been battling for quite some time.  My review of this agreement indicates that it had all of the hallmarks of a good compromise.

  • Everyone got a little something they wanted
  • Everyone gave up a little something they wanted
  • The compromise was greeted with relief, although each side disliked specific provisions.

My friends, to this very day Henry Clay is remembered as the "Great Compromiser."  I think that it might be possible that the current destructive state of affairs in our nation's capitol has led to him rolling over in his grave.  His legacy has been left in the dirt by our current group of egregious government goofs.

These were the sorts of thoughts which came into my mind's eye the other night as I was sitting in front of my large-screen television.  My feelings of anger and frustration towards the folks who are currently running our government (into the ground) in Washington were making my blood start to boil.  However, after I went out to my front porch to enjoy a 'stress-relief' cigar my mind began to think about ways in which we could begin moving in a positive direction.

Rather than wondering why these boobs cannot sit down at a table and work out a deal, I decided to do some research on just exactly what a compromise is and how it might be possible to reach one.  I wanted to create knowledge rather than simply throw rocks.  My friends, I believe that a great part of the problem lies with the inability of many in our government who feel that it is beneath their dignity to enter a small room with the other side and work to come to a middle ground.  I am afraid that there are to many of the 'my way or the highway' kinds of moron running amuck in our nation's capitol. 

Let me state right up front that compromise is not surrender.  There are those who will tell you that it is, but they are wrong.  It is something far better and far more useful.  A compromise is actually a deal between different parties (people) in which each side gives up part of their demands.  In arguments, compromise is a concept of finding agreement through communications.  It also involves the mutual acceptance of terms.  Often they involve both parties moving away from an original goal or desire.

Sadly what you and I are witnessing in our nation's government is not compromise or negotiation but rather it is a form of extremism, bordering on extortion, which is the exact opposite of compromise.  Part of the problem is that many people are unwilling to work on issues of balance and tolerance.  Sadly there are those who really do see compromise as an act of surrender. Some people think that by working out a deal with the other side that they are somehow giving up on their objectives, principles, and position in the process of negotiating an agreement.   

Let me suggest that the best agreements are made by people who use their personal principles and their moral compasses as their navigational tools during the negotiating process.  I have been in a great many situations where I had to deal with people who held views which were diametrically opposed to mine.  However, all of us were able to keep our eyes on what we were really doing.  We each gave a little and we got a little.  Those who seek to totally prevail and in turn totally embarrass and destroy the other side will never do as well as those who know how to give a little to get a little.  See also Washington, DC for an example of how well their attempt at extortion worked. 

There are also those who see compromise as an agreement that no party is happy with. I guess this is because the people involved frequently feel they either gave away too much or that they received too little.  This is the type of thinking which all but eliminates the ability for people to come together in any meaningful way.  Think about it.  Has there ever been a time in your life when you have gotten everything you wanted?  If you are like me the answer has to be no.

Many times people misread a situation while they are negotiating a compromise. Research has shown that less-than-adequate compromises are often the result of errors made when those making the deal fail to realize that they might actually share certain things in common with the other side.  Let me suggest that in these situations there are certain aspects of the negotiation which are attuned with those of the other party. By failing to realize this they end up settling for agreements which give them far less than they should have received.

Let me suggest to you that better outcomes can often be achieved by folks who engage in a careful investigation of both parties' interests, especially if done prior to, or early in the process of negotiations.  You need to know who and what you are dealing with during any negotiating session.  It is like the old saying which states that a lawyer never asks a question for which he does not already have the answer. 

Think about it my friends.  Do you not engage in negotiations every time your fire department creates a committee or asks for input on a problem?  Have you ever been a member of your department's by-laws committee?  I cannot tell how many concessions have been made in pursuit of new policies, procedures, and operational guidelines in my many decades in the fire service.

The key is to know exactly what you wish to achieve.  There is the core issue of what you seek to attain.  Then there are the other nice-to-have things which you feel could make things better for your agency which you might get.  Negotiate in good faith.  Do not lie or seek to deceive others.  In this way you can put your ideas forward in an honest and straightforward manner.

Let me suggest that it is critical for you to have a good idea about what the other person wishes to achieve.  Let me also suggest that if you and that personal can somehow manage to hit the sweet spot, where you both get most of what you want and they can get most of what they want, then that is a good thing.  This will involve a bit of research and intelligence gathering on your part.  I also recommend a large dose of listening to what is going on around you. 

Never enter a negotiating session with a 'my-way-or-the-highway' attitude.  Put your ideas forward and listen to the other side's position.  You must sense what the other person is seeking to accomplish and then relate your position to theirs.  The key is to work to achieve as much as you can before you reach the tipping point.  This is the point at which the other side shuts down and becomes unwilling to flex; or you shut down yourself. 

It may be that you cannot come to an agreement in the initial meeting.  As the old saying goes, 'Rome wasn't built in a day.' Do not say things which will anger and turn off the other side.  If need be suggest that you would like some time to study the issue and the come back for another meeting.  The keys to success are patience and discipline.  The other side may try to provoke you into losing your temper.  I have seen this is a negotiating ploy.  Do not fall for it. 

The key is to keep listening and keep talking.  If one side leaves the negotiating table, nothing positive can occur.  Let me assure you that negotiating a compromise is never an easy undertaking.  But success can be rewarding.

Lastly, never leave the table in anger.  Should the either side choose to do this, be the calm one and do not make things worse.  When tempers cool down, always be willing to return to the table for more talks.  Be willing to extend the olive branch of peace.  Always take the high road and do not throw any rocks at the other side's arguments. 

Compromise and conciliation are not easy things to accomplish. However, your labors can bear fruits which will better serve all in your organization.  Please give it a chance.  And if you have the opportunity, please share this with your member of Congress.  These are the folks who could profit greatly from the lessons in this commentary.  Anyway, it is time to head back out to the front porch for another cigar to celebrate my ability to put my thoughts in front of your eyes.  Take care and stay safe.