Real compromise requires an attitude adjustment

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By Sherry Robinson

So we end the year with a climate “accord” nobody likes. And health care reform limped out of Congress with critics baying on all sides. When the Legislature convenes to contend with the state’s red ink, we’ll probably see more controversial compromises, just as we did in the special session.

Which makes me think we don’t know how to compromise anymore. I’m not sure we even know what a compromise is.

I’ve seen the process in two settings – as a mediator and as an observer at New Mexico First’s Town Hall Meetings.

In mediation training, we learned that resolving conflict has several critical pieces. First, the right people have to be at the table with authority to make an agreement. Second, everybody has to negotiate in good faith. Third – and this is a big one – everyone must be heard and believe they’ve been heard by the others. Fourth, everyone should be prepared to concede on some lesser issues in order to reach an agreement on critical issues.

As a mediator, I’ve seen two emotional people forge an agreement they could live with, shake hands, and walk away satisfied. And I’ve also seen mediations fail because one of the four elements wasn’t in place.

New Mexico First has for decades provided a constructive forum that brings together a variety of people from all over the state to discuss a chosen issue – education, economic development, taxation, for example. The process is designed to allow participants to make their points and then to nudge players with divergent opinions toward a consensus. The final product is a document. Sometimes, frankly, the consensus document is a marvel of wording so muddy, it’s hard to tell what agreement was reached.

Compromise or consensus can be an ugly mutt. The compromise between black and white is grey.

But the process is still worthwhile. If you and I have sat together on a New Mexico First panel, we still might not agree by the end of the Town Hall, but I will go away with an understanding of how you feel because you’ve explained how you came to your views, and I’ve listened. And vice versa.

So when it appears that nothing much happened in Copenhagen, I’m philosophical. At least many of the people who count were at the table and had the authority to negotiate. Some of them were listening to each other. It was a start. A real agreement is going to take time. That won’t satisfy those who believe time is running out, but it’s the reality.

The health care compromise is more disturbing, not so much for its content as its process. For quite a while we saw the Gang of Six in the Senate, which included Sen. Jeff Bingaman, try valiantly to hear all sides and forge a compromise. Republicans, determined to torpedo reform no matter what, weren’t bargaining in good faith, but moderate and conservative Democrats were, so the developing plan did reflect divergent views.

Then, with the clock ticking, the leadership caved to the demands of extortionists. What we got was not compromise but a payoff.

That’s the way Congress has gotten used to doing things, and we shouldn’t be happy about it. We never crabbed here as long as St. Pete was arriving with a sleigh full of goodies, but when the beneficiaries are in Nebraska and Louisiana, we cry foul.

There’s a phrase I’m starting to find suspect: — win-win. We’ve heard so many times that deals are win-win, we’ve come to expect that every agreement will allow all sides to be a winner and nobody has to give anything up.

Life doesn’t work that way. Each of us makes compromises every day, and we understand our team will lose sometimes. Congress should play by our rules.


© New Mexico News Services 2009