Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about policy conflicts, large and small, and the drumbeat of concern about civility and insistence on compromise. Many are sure there is not enough of either, but no one seems to know how to get more. An explanation may lie in a few unexamined popular assumptions about negotiation. One way to think about this is to focus on the 4 Cs:
compromise, civility, competition, and compassion. Another is to consider whether people view negotiation as a set of skills or techniques or a particular kind of interpersonal dynamic. I suggest that how negotiation is seen results in processes that feel very different and create very different outcomes. What follows is a reflection, based on my own experience.
Negotiation and Civility: Concerns about a lack of civility can refer to name-calling, ridiculing, discrediting, and even physical violence in response to contrary or even just different viewpoints. Negotiation training frequently refers to active, empathic listening, a profound notion that each participant respects and takes seriously the values, concerns, needs, and desires of others. The goal is to advance to a true understanding that conflict makes diverse viewpoints no less legitimate. Acceptance of the legitimacy of another’s point of view is the root of civility. It is virtually impossible to demonize someone whom you honestly believe has as much right as you do to hold personal values or views. Negotiating from an assumption of mutual legitimacy creates a particular kind of interpersonal dynamic, which certain techniques can help to cultivate. Otherwise, negotiation techniques only help participants adhere to standards of conduct while under-the-surface antagonisms remain untouched. Civility requires acceptance of legitimacy, not just procedural tolerance of differences.
Negotiation and Competition: No one enters into negotiation without something in mind that they want to protect or advance. In this respect, there is always some sense of competition, even when the result is termed “win-win.” The diagnostic regarding competition pertains to quality and degree. Starting from a foundation of civility, a friendly or at least respectful rivalry moves toward outcomes designed to help each party identify and make progress on high-priority values. Sometimes the parties are surprised by the resolution they achieve, discovering unforeseen shared values or unexpected ways to reach their goals. In the absence of conditions for civility, such discoveries may be overwhelmed by a sense of rivalry or trade-offs among values that are perceived to have unequal legitimacy. In such a case, the primary interest of all parties may be to outmaneuver others with the goal of winning as much as possible, limited only by the ground rules in which the negotiation takes place. It seems self-evident that when conditions for civility are not in place, negotiation ground rules will be incapable of policing all interactions and the risk of incivility rises.
Negotiation and Compromise: It has become common to hear compromise named as the required outcome of negotiation and, furthermore, that compromise is equivalent to sacrifice. This notion of compromise fails to capture the spirit of negotiation as a process rooted in mutual legitimacy and a kind of competition that allows participants to make progress toward goals. Indeed, to equate compromise with sacrifice as the desired outcome of negotiation reduces incentives to engage in negotiation as a good problem-solving strategy except in a winner-take-all sort of framework – and in that case, the constraints on incivility are likely to be more than outweighed by competitive pressures. If any party to negotiation starts from that assumption, almost all foreseeable solutions would be seen as an outright loss. Even if only some parties fail to negotiate based on an acceptance of shared legitimacy, conditions for civility cannot exist. The prospect for civil compromise diminishes considerably unless it is possible to establish negotiating parameters that can anticipate and seek to institute shared legitimacy – an exceedingly difficult challenge.
Negotiation and Compassion: If you found compassion an odd addition to this list, consider that an indication of how strongly we have come to view negotiation as competition. Compassion clearly suggests a different quality of engagement than maneuvering hard up against the limits of ethical standards, relying only on the negotiation process to enforce the lines that must not be crossed. Civility requires an authentic empathy and appreciation of the perspectives of others. This cannot be achieved through competition alone. It requires compassion as a lens through which to understand the concerns that others bring to the table, even if those concerns may be foreign or even initially distasteful. The quality of compromise directly reflects the balance between competition and compassion in the negotiating process. Compromise as sacrifice suggests a decided bend toward the former and away from the latter.
In thinking through these relationships, it becomes apparent that they apply as much to Congressional debates as they do to state policy conflicts, agency management issues, or natural resource management challenges, and even interpersonal situations. Many people seek out negotiation training when a particular professional situation demands it but may find that the capacities developed become broadly applicable to other dimensions of their work and lives. In my own experience, working as a mediator early in my career indirectly contributed to almost every later successful and rewarding endeavor in many contexts. The ability to pay attention to what is said (and not said); to see different facets of issues, goals, and conflicts; and to be open to many possible solutions are habits that, once developed, are hard to break. This does not mean abdicating principles or denying strong, evidence-based opinions. Negotiation, at its best, becomes a process for respectful exploration and balance among civility, competition, compromise, and compassion. To assume otherwise or to randomly rely on one or two Cs perpetuates incivility and is unlikely to produce outcomes that warrant recognition as true compromise.
At the time of this writing Dr. Elisabeth Graffy was conducting research on energy, society and sustainability at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, following nearly two decades of federal service in Executive and Congressional agencies. She is currently Professor of Practice in the School of the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University. Her publications on environmental issues, public accountability, and the roles of science and civic engagement in policy development appear in many reports and journals including Society and Natural Resources and Public Administration Review.