Monday, April 11, 2011

Off the soapbox, it's time to compromise

Monument of Gandhi's Salt March, Pondicherry

Lately I've been pondering the question of collaboration. I've been thinking about how it may be possible to reach compromises with people who think and believe very differently. The question arises in many spheres, private and public, professional and political.

My last post was written in a moment of great passion, frustration, anger and disappointment about the lack of compromise, the lack of collaboration between the Republicans and the Democrats of the Wisconsin State Assembly. I am still frustrated with politics. But the local, state, and national politics obviously have been and continue to be constantly fraught with this challenge.

What can be done when people feel very differently, and simultaneously feel very strongly about an issue? How can satisfactory agreement or compromise be reached? More recently, I've been pondering this question not with the question of state or national politics, but with collaborations with colleagues in my professional life.

In collaboration with colleagues towards common goals, such as the development of IAWAWSA as an organization, I find myself sometimes in fairly stark disagreements about how things should be done. I am not surprised that we have differences of opinion, as we are bound to think and feel differently. Sometimes these differences are obviously due to cultural differences, myself as an American, and some of my collaborators who are Indian. Sometimes the differences are simply linguistic and semantic, differences in the way in which we interpret words. But language and culture can't be used as scapegoats for all the differences of opinion and thought. Some of the disagreements are with my fellow American collaborators.

In case you couldn't tell from having read my blog in the past, I'm a person with strong convictions about my beliefs and values. I don't think I'm special or unique in this way. Rather it poses some serious challenges. In particular, though I believe in the importance of compromise, I'm not always very good at it. It's something I struggle with, something that I consciously work to improve in my life.

Because I feel quite strongly about most things, I find it difficult to pick my battles, so to speak. When it comes time to negotiate a compromise, I know that I should prioritize the aspects of the issue that are most important to me, and be willing to let go of the things that I feel are less important. But this principle is harder to apply in practice than it sounds.

When the differences are obviously cultural, it's both easier and harder. On the one hand, it's easier to accept that perhaps I should respect those perspectives with which I disagree. On the other hand, it sometimes means we are so far apart in not just what we think, but how we arrive at those conclusions, it makes it more difficult to find the point of compromise in the middle.

As my readers can tell, I'm writing in a lot of vague generalities, rather than specifics. I don't want to offend anyone, and I don't intend this as a complaint. We are bound to disagree, and it's my responsibility, and everyone's responsibility to find a way to reach a compromise. I work on it every day. But the bigger the goal, the harder it is, and working on these kinds of projects has given me a newfound respect for anyone whose job consists of this sort of compromise every day. As an academic, and being in a field which is not always collaborative, or which often creates hierarchies to decision-making, instead of equal collaborations, I have not needed to confront the challenge of negotiation and compromise most of the time. Maybe what I really need is practice.

I suppose these thoughts tend towards stating the obvious, but I find it useful to think "out loud" about such things. I know that there is no "answer" to these questions. Rather, I am, and I hope we all are, just doing the best we can to get along.

The Honesty Society (provisions store), Pondicherry