The Art of Negotiation

…might be worth trying before the Art of War…

“A zeal for different opinions…have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.  So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”

~ James Madison, The Federalist Papers No. 10, 23 November 1787


The Founding Fathers were big on compromise.  In general, they believed that debate was both productive and necessary for good governance.  But they also recognized that certain things just weren’t up for discussion.  After all, when you hold certain truths to be “self-evident” that pretty much makes them indisputable.  The trick is figuring out what is actually black and white (very few things) versus just another shade of grey (most things-the available palette being just a tad larger).  Unfortunately, these days that particular skill seems to have grown scarce on the ground, in Congress and in our nation as a whole (and even throughout the world).  When did we, as individuals in this society, collectively decide that only our own personal opinions or ideas counted?  When did it, rather ironically, become a positive societal value to view oneself and one’s views as the only things that could possibly ever be right?  When everything becomes black and white for everyone and all the grey disappears, of course we can only be locked in an endless cycle of conflict over just about anything.  If I want 5 clowns at the party and you want 3, it used to be that we compromised and had 4.  But these days, I want 5 clowns and I will accept nothing more or less because the only “right” amount of clowns is 5, and I cannot possibly encompass that another number of clowns nor another opinion on the proper number of clowns could ever be valid.  We are so polarized and isolated, and so sure that only our own views are not only valid, but the only ones that matter that we could all endlessly debate the number of clowns at a party.  It’s become absolutely ridiculous.

Everyone likes to get their own way.  Everyone likes to be right.  But when two or more people come together to accomplish something be it clowns at birthday parties or governing a nation, then there is no possible way everyone will get their way all the time.  And as far as the inherent “rightness” of opinions goes, when everyone has one they can’t all possibly be right.  Real negotiations are challenging because sometimes they mean compromising, or even giving in.  Sometimes it means compromising things that might be very important to us.  Sometimes it means giving up on our own view to allow someone else to have their way entirely so that we can have our way in something else.  And dare I say it, that sometimes it means looking at something and recognizing that we might have been wrong or that someone else’s way might actually be better.  It’s funny, because we like our leaders, our representatives, to be decisive and strong, and we publicly ridicule those who show any willingness or ability to alter their own opinions.  We prize some personality traits that make compromising less of a likelihood, and yet, we want these people to actually generate a functional government!   No wonder our system seems perpetually broken, ready to go off one cliff or another.  We have forgotten that true strength also means being able to bend without breaking.


Res Publica


Documentation without Representation:

James Madison, The Federalist Papers No. 10, 23 November 1787 (emphasis added by me)

Electronic Text Courtesy of the Avalon Project at Yale Law School

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