We’ve lost the art of real negotiation. There was a time, growing up in America, when you actually had to have some skill to get what you wanted, what you believed you needed. Remember the days when you didn’t dare leave the sofa, in case a sibling took over your “spot”? Recall the times when you had to beg, plead, cajole, and insist that your show was the one to watch? We’ve lost that forced “have to get along” thing. Nowadays, it’s a crap shoot as to whether anyone will get anything. The bullies have taken over. The weak sit on the sidelines and go without. All because we are no longer in a position where we actually have to make successful deals on significant issues.
Think about it, baby boomer. Back when we were kids, we actually had to share. We didn’t have a choice. We had to get along or we couldn’t play. If the other kids got on your nerves, you took your ball and went home, until they were ready to play nicely. You had some leverage to get yourself into the game, and once there, you had a chance to influence how things went. Now? Nobody’s interested in playing nicely. We’d rather go our separate ways.
That’s what struck me yesterday when the group of gathered politicians and family members of victims lost to mass shootings gathered for a photo op. Accompanying the image of some very disappointed people was an article about how furious the politicians were, how sad the relatives were. That’s when I realized how far off track we are as a nation.
We’re not going about our negotiations as a shared process. That’s why it’s not working. You want gun control. The other guy wants mental health issues addressed. Your conclusion when you don’t get what you want is that the other guy is a creep for not conceding. The other guy’s conclusion? You’re a bully for insisting that there will be no negotiation on the issue. Back when we were kids, this was considered a stalemate. Nobody won. Nobody got to play “Capture the Flag”. Nobody got to play anything because the two teams couldn’t even agree to play.
What could have happened in Washington, if real negotiations, if real dialogue took place? Maybe we could have agreed to really take a hard look at what’s going on with these mass killings. You have disgruntled killers bent on massive destruction and loss of life, who want to bring attention to themselves for no other reason than they cannot connect to their fellow human beings. “I am the King of the Universe, and you minions are all under my power!” That kind of twisted acting out isn’t stopped by a gun permit. Neither are our children protected in school by armed guards. We’re going to waste time, energy, and resources playing “ketchup”, when we really should be stopping this behavior in its earliest stages — in childhood. We need to teach children that they are a part of life, not the giver and taker of life. They do not have super powers. They are not entitled to do whatever the hell they want to do. They need to work with people, not against them. But how do you teach that when you have so many adults who feel entitled to do whatever they want, regardless of the greater good and actual need? As long as Washington’s politicians see the need to chastise, instead of conducting real negotiations, it’s all a sham.
Washington has so fractured the structure of democracy, there is no equivalent of the family TV and family sofa. We have no reason to get along because we’re not all in the same room at the same time. Fairness, shmairness.
Ever know single people who live their lives without having to concede anything? They’re often the people bitching the loudest about how they can’t find a decent relationship. No romance seems to work out for them. It’s that elusive desire that always slips away. I can tell you why. You live with other people, you damn well better be able to negotiate and concede ground if you plan on getting half of what you need. How many single people never have to bother sharing a meal? Eat whatever you want whenever you want. But if there are two or more people? At some point in time, you’re going to have to eat something that’s not your favorite, and you’re also going to have to speak up when you want to have the chance to engage in your own preferences. That’s what happens when two or more people occupy the same space, by choice or by necessity.
Remember sharing a room with a sibling? Those days are now gone, as parents opt for the big houses with separate bedrooms and bathrooms. No more pounding on the door when a brother or sister takes too long in front of the mirror.
It’s sad really, that we have lost sight of the fact that other people have needs that differ from our own. We have become so enamoured of our own selves that we ignore the reality that our way is not always the only way, the best way, or the necessary way. We’re too far apart to spend real time together and to get what needs doing done, because we’re not interested in playing together and sharing our toys.
Is it a mistake not to engage with “the other team”? Are we missing valuable opportunities to work together, to play together, to develop real respect through dialogue and negotiation? Of course we are. As individuals, we are a bunch of folks with divergent ideas, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. We’re going our separate ways constantly, disconnected from the greater spirit of this nation. This is supposed to be a democracy, a country of people who can agree on the Constitution’s principles as a means of focusing on what the greater good can and should be, while at the same time respecting the rights of the individual. We have bent over backwards so many times in the effort to appease the disgruntled. Maybe now it’s time to accept the fact that we aren’t going to agree to everything our fellow citizens want and let that be okay, just as we aren’t going to get everything we want. We should still be trying to work that out, rather than sulking because we failed to gain our ground.
When we were kids, it was normal to accept defeat on a routine basis because there were other victories. The losses balanced out, especially when you were motivated to find common ground. And when you found common ground, they turned into wins, because you and “the other guys” could agree on something, anything.
Every time a politician grabs a group of people to stand behind him, every time he or she hammers home a political agenda, we lose what matters most to us as human beings — the chance to genuinely come together as a nation. We get caught up in liberal and conservative causes. We cling to agendas, concepts, and ideas without ever having any intention of ceding turf. How can we ever find common ground if we are too sequestered on our mountain tops, looking down on the little people with disappointment because they have not followed our game plan?
Want an example of real common ground? It’s the sight of those brave people at the Boston Marathon who ran to give assistance and comfort to the victims, who didn’t stop to ask “Why me, Lord?”, but who sought to soothe, to stem the flow of blood, to save lives, regardless of political beliefs, religious beliefs, ethnicity, skin color, or anything else. In that horrible aftermath, it didn’t matter to them. They only cared about what was right in front of them. Human beings in need.
I don’t know about you, but I am humbled by that courage, that desire of ordinary people to be extraordinary. That’s real common ground. No squabbling. No turning away from people. No shunning this one or that one. Everyone shared the risk, the heartbreak, the sorrow. They were focused on the crisis. They came together to make a difference.
The next time a politician claims that the other side is the bad guy for not conceding he’s the “correct thinker”, I want you to remember what real negotiations are. It’s putting the people’s needs ahead of the politics. It’s sucking it up so we can all be in the same room at the same time, sharing that sofa as we watch TV. All those divisive voices from the left and the right have one thing in common. They still don’t understand that we need to meet in the middle if we’re going to work this all out and coexist in peace.