The clock is rapidly running down on the efforts of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, known as the "Super Committee." Before Thanksgiving, these members of Congress, six from each party, must find ways to reduce the national deficit by more than $1 trillion or gigantic cuts happen automatically.
Most of the nation is watching, waiting, and hoping for a compromise -- which at this point seems further away than ever. After months of dialogue, the two sides remain teetering on the old dilemma of either increasing taxes or cutting benefits. Now other members of Congress have formed a "Go-Big Coalition," putting pressure on the committee to cut not $1.2 trillion but $4 trillion.
As we watch, we wonder why they can't just agree on a formula and move on. But the problem goes much deeper than the issues on the table. As conservative commentator John Hawkins admits, "There's a gulf as wide as the ocean between the average politically active conservative and the average politically active liberal. We don't just have political differences; we view the world through very different eyes."
It's those different world views that can't be reconciled. They look at each other with incredulity, unable to believe that people can think like that.
But there is a way out that doesn't require anybody to give up their most treasured principles and beliefs. Like most dilemmas, the deficit dilemma is false. There are almost always more than two alternatives to any problem.
Someone on that committee needs to look everyone in the eye and ask this question: "Are we willing to look for a solution that is better than any of us have thought of before?" In other words, are they open to getting past their positions, beyond their ideologies, and looking for a 3rd Alternative, a higher and better way that is beyond both "my way" and "your way"?
A 3rd Alternative is not a compromise where everyone has to give up something to get to a temporary accommodation. By contrast, everyone wins with a 3rd Alternative; no one has to give up anything.
Seeking a 3rd Alternative opens the mind to all kinds of possibilities. You are performing a thought experiment together. You ask many provocative questions: "What if?" "What one thing, if we did it better, would change everything?" "We've always done it this way -- suppose we did the opposite?" "Who in history has solved this problem, and how did they do it?"
The 12 Super Committee members are seasoned, intelligent representatives of the people. The Go-Big Coalition is urging them to look past their original narrow charter, enlarge their vision, and put all options on the table. If committee members were to unleash their creativity in the search for a 3rd Alternative instead of an unsatisfying compromise, who knows what astonishing solutions they might arrive at? I have no idea -- but I have faith in them and in the wisdom and creativity of people of good will. I believe they can do it, but they won't get to the root of the problem using the same old defensive thinking. Let's hope they get there before Thanksgiving.
Dr. Stephen R. Covey, renowned author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, has just released his new book The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life's Most Difficult Problems. For more information visit www.the3rdalternative.com.