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Principles and Optimism /Realism and Compromise

by Phyllis Pollack
March 2016

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

Phyllis  Pollack

As a mediator, I have often had a party tell me that she will not settle on the terms proffered because, “It is all about principle!” I take this with a grain or two of salt because I have learned that if the other party becomes sufficiently generous in the offer, the “principled” party will accept the generous terms and settle.

In his book, The Conflict Paradox (ABA and Jossey-Bass 2015), Bernard Mayer discusses the paradoxes of Principle and Compromise (Id. at 131-166) and Optimism and Realism. (Id. at 61-94.) I discuss them together because they go hand in hand.

As the author notes with respect to optimism and realism:

Optimism and realism require each other. We cannot be genuinely optimistic in conflict without also being realistic, and realism without optimism is not truly realistic….

Realism puts boundaries around optimism. Optimism suggests that we can have a powerful effect on the reality we face. …. (Id. at 61-62.)

If we view these on a continuum with optimism (or complete certainty) on one end, and realism (or utter confusion) on the other end, we sense that “… complete certainty breeds rigidity and closes the door to communication while realism helps us recognize that the resolution to our dispute, like life itself, is unpredictable….” (Id. at 62.)

This is where the other paradox- principle and compromise- fits in. If we are so adamant in sticking with our principles “no matter what”, we are not being realistic.  Being so principled will often lead to self-defeat (Id. at 131.):

 One cannot be truly principled without sometimes compromising in very significant ways. Moreover, the value of principles in our lives is to guide us in making the essential compromises that life requires. (Id at 131.)

That is, to compromise is to be realistic. While we will use our values and principles as guideposts to help us view the world optimistically, we must also be realistic and accept that compromise is a necessary part of life. (Id. at 132.) In fact, being rigid or stubbornly steadfast in our values will do nothing to promote them whereas through compromise, we may be able to make some progress towards our ultimate goal, even if only it is one inch at a time. (Id. at 132.)

We can look to history for examples. One prominent example is Civil Rights. The U. S. Constitution as  agreed to in 1787 provided that those other than “Free Persons “ would be counted as 3/5 of a “Free Person” for purposes of determining the apportionment of taxes and  the number of Representatives ( U. S. Const. Article I, Section 2). It was not until after the Civil War pursuant to ratification of the 13th amendment in 1865 that slavery was abolished. By means of the 15th Amendment ratified in 1869, the right to vote was extended to all irrespective of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. As we all know from recent history, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s spurred legislation (e.g., The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Voting Rights Act of 1965) and actions in general towards equality. Each was a small step, a compromise steeped in the realism that to hold rigidly and unyieldingly to core values and principles would not lead to progress. With optimism that one day there would be equal rights for all, compromises that would lead to the ultimate goal were made. As a result, in 2008, the United States elected its first African- American president whose wife descends from slaves.

A second example is gender equality. Although, we declared our independence in 1776, women did not have the right to vote until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. This was certainly a “big” step in women’s rights. Over the next century, women slowly gained their voice making quite a lot of noise in the 1960’s era of the Women’s Liberation Movement.  As a result, Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman to run as the nominee of a major party (Democratic) for Vice President in 1984 (followed by Sarah Palin in 2008) and now Hillary Rodham Clinton is once again seeking the presidential nomination.  The steps along this continuum consisted of principles and compromise tempered by optimism (Or as the famous Rosie the Riveter poster says, “We Can Do It!”) and realism. Women’s liberation, like all other great movements, recognized that  change would not come overnight but in small steps, one at a time.

So while one may think that it is bad to compromise, or shows a weakness in our values and principles, in reality, compromise furthers our principles. Ultimately, it can lead us to the greater good. Compromising shows that while we are optimistic that the world is indeed, principled and value oriented, we are also realistic in recognizing that change does not occur dramatically but one small step at a time.

Principles and Compromise. Optimism and Realism. They seem quite disparate, but, in reality, go hand in hand. Especially when trying to settle a dispute!

… Just something to think about.



Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as well as their own needs better than any mediator or arbitrator. She does not impose her views or make decisions for the parties. Rather, Phyllis assists the parties in creating options that meet the needs and desires of both sides.  When appropriate, visual aids are used in preparing discussions and illustrating possible solutions. On the other hand, she is not averse to being proactive and offering a generous dose of reality, particularly when the process may have stalled due to unrealistic expectations of attorney or client, a failure to focus on needs rather than demands, or when one or more parties need to be reminded of the potential consequences of their failure to reach an agreement.

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