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Election Reflections

I’m thinking more about the polarized state of the nation than about who wins any particular election. Here’s why:

Election results won’t change the vicious divide. Even if things calm down after the election, they will likely heat up again next time. This is not the first election cycle that pits “us” against “them.” What is the root of this?

Political choices are anchored in beliefs. When emotional intensity drives beliefs, positions get locked in, impervious to inspection.

Too easily we can find ourselves hell bent on being right, without wisdom.

Media intensifies this process. The business of media focuses on market share: give the consumer what the consumer will pay for. What we get is exaggeration, fixed viewpoints, and repetition. The result is a daily stream of titillating nonsense that distracts from reasonableness and common sense.

In an atmosphere like that, it’s hard to hold a fervent viewpoint and maintain an open mind. Emotional convictions easily spin irrational defenses.

The medicine for our dilemma is not a mystery. It’s a well-documented strategy that has helped groups of intelligent creatures—chimpanzees, elephants, wolves, and dolphins—thrive for millions of years. We can learn from them.

The strategy is compromise.

Compromise means accepting some (not all) of what I want in order to satisfy some (not all) of what another wants. Through compromise, each gets “enough” to keep the system moving forward.

It’s the opposite of winner-take-all.

Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were finalized only after a series of compromises. These foundational documents were shaped by a sometimes grueling process of spirited debate that produced a lot of giving in, and a lot of taking.

Ultimately, no one person and no one view dominated.

This works at home too. For example, consider the work of Cornell University’s Dr. Karl Pillemer, who engaged in conversations with long-term marital partners about what makes love relationships satisfying. He concluded that successful, long-lasting relationships included a respect for difference and a mindset of teamwork vs. individualism.

In a similar way, throughout my career, I have observed how a leader’s spirit of compromise helps group members function more calmly and deliberately. Such a leader operates with poise, listens to all arguments, and gains credibility. Decisions arise from careful consideration, not reactivity.

Yet for many, the word “compromise” symbolizes weakness and caving in. How can we compromise on something we truly believe in?

Fair question.

Here’s my response: Group survival is more important than individuals—or political parties— getting everything they want. Intelligent beings value compromise not because it feels good, but because it works.

If you need a more blunt rationale, consider this: The most uncompromising among us fall into three unsavory categories: terrorists, dictators, and the entitled.

Worldwide, terrorists are bound together by a common mantra: “Give me what I want or I’ll hurt you.” Bullies, totalitarian tyrants, and spoiled children use the same script: “Do it my way, or I will make life difficult for you.”

Automatically refusing to compromise describes children in temper tantrums, violent protesters, and all oppressors, dominators, and subjugators.

We join such outliers when we care only about winning, at the expense of the greater good.

Does this mean there is never a time to take a firm stand? Of course not. But trustworthy stands come only after careful thought that includes invited scrutiny from neutral others.

When strong leadership or family relationship positions come from passion without reflection, the group usually suffers as a result.

The next time you feel strongly about something, ask yourself these questions:

“Who might be unfairly disadvantaged by the position I’m taking?”

“Have I looked for the good in the other’s viewpoint?”

“What’s best for the group?”

As the election looms, a pronounced absence of compromise threatens the solidity of our national culture.

Being right, gaining fame, making a profit, and winning feel fantastic in the heat of the moment. However, group survival is crucial in the long run. The willingness to compromise is key to moving a group forward together.


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