Compromising Positions

There's a well-known story in the field of conflict resolution that tells of two sisters fighting over an orange. They argue back and forth, forth and back, about who better deserves to have it. The older one says she deserves it because she's older, the younger one because she's younger, and both are adamantly stuck in their positions. With no resolution in sight, they finally decide to compromise and so split the orange in half. Each walks away with half an orange, proud of having found what she considers to have been the most efficient way to resolve the dispute.

But was it the best way?

With their respective halves of orange in hand, one of the sisters proceeds to peel hers, throw the peel away and eat the fruit; the other throws away her fruit and uses the peel for a cake she's baking.

Had the sisters attempted to explore each other's underlying needs and interests, the sister who'd wanted the fruit would have ended up with a whole orange to enjoy rather than a half, and the sister who'd planned to bake a cake would have had an entire orange peel at her disposal. Certainly, every conflict is different (as are the individuals, circumstances and cultures involved) and no one type of resolution strategy fits all; however, research does show that parties in dispute who exercise a collaborative strategy (also called "interest-based" or "integrative") are more likely to succeed in creating mutually acceptable solutions. So, while the sisters did manage to resolve their dispute, a collaborative approach would have been more mutually beneficial than their compromise.

There are four basic ways people can deal with conflict at different times - competition, avoidance, accommodation and collaborative problem-solving. These strategies depend on the level of concern people in dispute have for their own outcome vis-à-vis the other party's outcome. (It's called the Dual Concern Model.) If, for example, in a given conflict you have low concern for both your outcome and that of the other, it's likely you'll avoid the conflict or do nothing; on the other hand, if you have high concern for your outcome and little for the other's, you're likely to be competitive. Some conflict resolution theorists include compromise as a fifth strategy; however, others see compromise not as a strategy but rather as "a kind of 'lazy' problem solving, involving a half-hearted attempt to find a solution serving both parties' interests."* I'm inclined to agree with the latter.

It seems that virtually every time we read or hear of the ostensibly never-ending political posturing and conflicts in Congress, it's "compromise" that's said to be sought and, less frequently, achieved. And each time I read or hear that, I think of those two sisters. Now, maybe it's semantics; perhaps what's being referred to in Congress as "compromise" does include elements of collaborative negotiation; however, based on the pervasiveness of contentious posturing in that bicameral chamber (not to mention the vested interest factor), I'm skeptical as to how much earnest collaboration might be taking place.

Words have power, and so does how we frame them. What I'm proposing is a sort of Congressional paradigm shift, a reframing of the quest for the political brass ring: Strive to negotiate a "collaborative resolution" rather than seek "compromise." I'm reminded of that line from the movie, Field of Dreams, "If you build it, he will come." However far-fetched the concept might seem with respect to Capitol Hill, perhaps by lawmakers' reframing their conflict resolution model more collaboration could actually come.

A bona fide effort to move past positions and obtain real understanding of each other's underlying interests and needs has the potential for being far more fruitful than simply splitting the orange in two.

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*Pruitt & Kim (2004, p. 41)


Mallory J. Stevens of Mallory Stevens LLC is a certified mediator and conflict resolution consultant in private practice in NYC.