Michele Straube: Leaders should seek cooperation and collaboration, not compromise

Almost immediately after news agencies called the election for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, pundits and others were talking about the need to work across differences and “compromise.”

Biden, in his acceptance speech, rightfully did not use that term. He talked instead about the need and opportunity for “cooperation.” Similarly, Utah’s Gov.-elect Spencer Cox talks about the state’s culture of “collaboration.” These are the words and concepts we should be embracing, rather than “compromise.” Here’s why:

“Compromise” involves giving something up, a tit-for-tat type of negotiation that often leaves all participants feeling they got less than they wanted or deserved. And it often does not provide durable solutions.

“Cooperation” and “collaboration,” by contrast, focus on true needs and possibility. We work together to identify and confirm the underlying problem. We work together to brainstorm possible solutions that meet the needs of all interested parties. We work together to implement the mutually designed solution. No one feels left out or taken advantage of.

A simplistic example may make the distinction clearer. Imagine two children, one orange and a busy parent. Each child wants the orange. The parent decides to “compromise” and cuts the orange in half. Neither child is happy with just half the orange.

Hit rewind and play things out using “collaboration.” Each child identifies what he or she is going to do with the orange. One needs the rind of a full orange to bake a cake. The other needs the juice of a full orange to make a smoothie. In working together to identify the underlying problem, both children co-create a solution that meets their needs — a solution neither had thought of on their own.

I saw the success of cooperation and collaboration in my years as an environmental mediator. I worked with groups with apparently irreconcilable interests (think ranchers, all levels of government, environmental representatives). All of them were trying to improve a given landscape, but in different ways.

The participants usually came in with diametrically opposed solutions to the same perceived problem. Once they stopped arguing about solutions and focused on clearly identifying the problem they were trying to address, they often found themselves in unlikely agreement: The landscape they all loved was not healthy.

Then came learning conversations about what could be done to investigate the situation collaboratively. Finally came decisions to act, often cooperatively, and to work together in the future to monitor the success of those actions.

So what skills do we need to cooperate and collaborate? We need to listen to one another to find out what we really care about. If we lack important information, we need to gather that information together, so it is trusted by all. Most important, we need to be creative about designing potential solutions together, instead of staying invested in our pet solution and digging in our heels.

We have these skills. They may just need a little encouragement and exercise.

As both President-elect Biden and Gov.-elect Cox clearly recognize, it is time to refocus on cooperation and collaboration across our state and throughout our country. In most cases, I suspect we agree on the fundamental problems that need to be solved.

But forging consensus will need hard work. We can and must work together to co-create solutions that incorporate multiple, possibly conflicting, perspectives. Not by one or more groups giving something up (compromising), but by generating creative ideas together.

It won’t be easy, but it will be productive. Together, we can and will make the world a better place through cooperation and collaboration. I can’t wait for us all to get started.

Michele Straube

Michele Straube is the founding director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program at the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment, S.J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah. She retired in September 2017.