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Compromise or Consensus: The Heart or the Mind?

I’ve had some conversations recently related to compromise and consensus. Just like many people think compostable and biodegradable are one-in-the-same, many also think compromise and consensus are synonyms; but they aren’t.

Compromise is defined by Webster as “settlement of differences by arbitration or by consent reached by mutual concessions.” In plain English, this means when reaching a decision, each party gives up something. They concede.

Consensus is defined by Webster first as “general agreement” and second as “group solidarity in sentiment and belief.” Also known as buy-in. Its root is in the Latin word “consentio” meaning to “feel together.”

I’m big on consensus; I’m not so enamored with compromise. Compromise has such a negative connotation. We went to dinner with some friends and he made a comment that resonated with me. It applies here. He said “we need to agree at the heart level, not the intellectual level.”

What I took from this was that compromise is the intellectual level. Our mind rationalizes and comes to conclusions and we may get to a point of tolerating our neighbor. But we don’t really love our neighbor. That comes from consensus.

Consensus is the heart level. It’s the buy-in. The “feel together” aspect of a decision. We reach a conclusion with another and we own it. Too often, we give in or we argue to win and it’s really boiling down to how it affects me. Not my friend, not my neighbor. Me. Selfish, self-centered me. And when we “lose” or don’t win completely, we compromise. A decision is made not in line with our desire and we say something like “He’s not MY President,” or “She’s not MY Mayor.” (I’ve seen and heard those exact quotes — and I think you have too).

What I appreciate about consensus is the feel together, solidarity aspect it brings. The heart. We can disagree on compostable versus biodegradable versus recyclable versus reusable, but the real issue is do we care about the Creation around us? And really, when it gets to that heart level, I think we are all “feeling together” or in solidarity that we do. While I have friends with a vast range of opinions on global warming, climate change, drilling for oil and solar photovoltaics, I think one opinion we all share is we like this Earth we live on and want it to be a pleasant place to live.

And I guess that’s where I struggle with where we are at as a culture right now. In politics, in religion, we dig in our heels, we demand our way, we argue and refuse to even compromise, much less reach any kind of consensus. A public speaker I admire once said “This is really about That.”

We argue in the political arena about styrofoam cups or compostable cups. We debate the content of a book without ever having read it. And, I believe the bottom line in the argument has really nothing to do with the environment or the book, but rather a power trip to prove who is the Alpha Male. In the first situation, I’d like to believe both sides would really like to see less waste, less garbage, spoons that don’t break, etc. But we resort to positioning and strutting instead of addressing the issues of waste and breaking spoons. Because we don’t ever want to appear to compromise. And the second situation is positioning myself as the expert (back to that Alpha Male scenario).

I wonder what would happen if, in every decision we had to make as a group, in every political arena, every religious arena, we started with outlining what we agree on. Before we ever got into the issue, we listed the things we agree on. Then list our goals. What do we want to accomplish in this venue? And then (and only then), we worked toward consensus and general agreement and solidarity.

I think then, we would really be loving our neighbor instead of merely tolerating them.

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