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dorothy w nelson

Judge Dorothy W. Nelson

There is a lot of discussion these days about the detriments of compromise. When you compromise, for instance, certain people may claim you don't stick to your guns and decide not to vote for you. They may disparage you for refusing the black and white principles elucidated in whatever sort of "pledge" they demand, said pledge being a condition of your receiving their endorsement or even more importantly, their campaign contributions. They won't say it (or they might), but they certainly will think you are a sissy.

Quite a bit has been said about the merits of the opposing positions on the debt ceiling debate and I won't reiterate those arguments here. It is fascinating, however, how so many anti-government politicians like to brand themselves "real world" businesspeople. If people in the "real world" negotiated the way those in Washington do, they would lose their jobs in a hurry.

While many blame the stalemate in Washington on the abundance of lawyers charged with getting government's work done, "real world" lawyers often find that clients are better served when the "I will crush you" posturing ends. People who have to get work done in the "real world" find that openness to compromise often results in clients spending less money on things like divorces and other types of nightmarishly protracted litigation. In these blood battles, even the alleged victors may emerge feeling battered and those with justice on their side can end up on the losing side because of a jury's peculiar evaluation of the facts.

Federal appellate judge Dorothy Wright Nelson (my former boss and founder of the Western Justice Center, which promotes alternative methods of conflict resolution) likes to tell the story of a group of elementary school students who were asked to resolve a hypothetical dispute involving a challenge to a bad grade. Appointing student "lawyers" for both the teacher and the recipient of the poor mark, the students first sought to resolve the matter using a conventional, one-winner, approach.

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The "lawyer" for the teacher defended the grade, arguing that the student at issue fell asleep in class and that it was impossible to teach effectively to inattentive students. The "lawyer" for the student argued that his "client" fell asleep because he went to school without breakfast -- and further claimed that the grade resulted from the teacher's bias against the student. The class, voting as "judges," voted in favor of the student.

When the students were asked to resolve the same dispute using the mediation techniques in which they'd been trained, however, they embraced a more comprehensive approach. They recommended that someone write the PTA asking for assistance for hungry students and also that the teacher provide the student supplemental tutoring (this bit of extra attention both providing the remedial educational help needed and helping to disprove any claims of teacher bias.) While such a subtle approach to problem solving didn't give either side playground bragging rights about "crushing" the opposition, it did manage to create a solution that left both sides intact while providing both short and long-term relief for the problem.

Of course, governmental budgetary issues are not as easily resolved as elementary school hypotheticals. Even more critically, the minds of Washington decision makers (or corporate lawyers) are generally not as flexible as those of fourth graders. When those who have to complete crucial tasks choose instead to adhere to the rigid orthodoxy of those who have no such practical obligations, or when they are otherwise held in thrall by the need to "crush" the opposition, opportunities for creative problem solving remain elusive. The grandstanding that results puts even the best (or rather, the worst) reality television to shame.

Openness to compromise often allows "real world" problem solvers -- as opposed to the ones who play them on tv -- to avoid this ceaseless spiral. Rare is the situation where everyone ends up perfectly happy, but sometimes eating a little less pie is better than starving. (And to those who might need some help figuring out how to get started with such an outside the box -- or beltway -- approach, there is a group of elementary students who might be available for a consult.)

tanya acker

Tanya Acker

Republished from Huffington Post with the author's permission.