It wasn’t always this way. Anyone old enough to remember the world before cable news knows that, although we’ve always had our political disagreements, we used to disagree with each other. That is, our politicians and pundits used to vehemently dispute each other’s premises in hopes of knocking down each other’s conclusions. But even a casual follower of politics can see that we don’t really do that anymore. Neither party nor their cable news correlates cares as much about the other side’s conclusions as they do about their own. As a result, they don’t really worry about knocking down or even acknowledging the other side’s premises.
In a word, today’s political environment involves disagreeing past each other more often than disagreeing with each other. To offer an analogy, our political subcultures were once like the Cubs and White Sox grinding out the World Series (this is the year!). They’re now like the Cubs and Bears, grinding out the Series and Super Bowl in parallel—and alone.
In the political domain, these observations are not new. But, in the spirit of making life more negotiable, I do think it’s worth considering what we can learn about our own negotiations from this dynamic.
The two parties in a negotiation are much like the two parties in politics. Their interests often conflict, generating a disagreement they can choose to acknowledge, explore, and unpack. Alternatively, they can choose to justify and reiterate their own interests ad nauseam even while ignoring their counterpart’s interests, disagreeing past each other and effectively denying the existence of a disagreement. In negotiations, if not in politics, I would strongly advise the former approach, as a frank acknowledgment of the disagreement often paves the way for an innovative solution. A refusal to face down the disagreement, in contrast, often paves the way for disaster. Indeed, that approach is not even negotiation, but persuasion.
So why do negotiators so often disagree past each other? The same reason the politicians do: it’s a whole lot easier to ignore the disagreement than tackle it directly. And it’s a surefire way to please a constituency, since the missed opportunity is typically invisible. And it requires a lot less listening, creativity, and maturity—among other critical attributes that few people possess. For negotiators as for politicians, disagreeing past each other is a whole lot simpler. But its simplicity comes at the price of unresolved problems and simmering conflicts.
In short, whether or not our political environment works this way, I would advise all of us as negotiators to try and disagree with each other rather than disagree past each other. Only by doing that can we hope to avoid the fate that so often befalls politicians: promising much and delivering little. In short, I offer this rare ode to disagreement, in hopes that it ultimately paves the way to agreement.