One of the lines in the longer communal confession of Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement) is “for the sins which we have committed through negotiations,” where “negotiations” is often translated as “business dealings.” The literal translation is “through giving and taking,” which in modern Hebrew usually colloquially refers to business. Hopefully it is a line that the people saying it really don’t need to say, particularly since that sort of sin is in the category of conduct between people and therefore is explicitly not forgiven on Yom Kippur! But somehow, of all the possible sins that could be committed (and with 613 commandments, there are at least that many ways to err), that makes the cut for the public and verbal confession.
Negotiation makes the cut because it is just so easy to use it as a way to take advantage of someone else, even if the way you do it is to refuse to negotiate. We have all seen examples, some exceedingly public, of people who refuse to engage in any form of negotiation or constructive dialogue and then turn around and blame the parties they refuse to negotiate with for the impasse. It’s an amazing level of self-delusion that can’t help but insult the intelligence of everyone who observes it. But it keeps happening. A strategy of “give me everything I want and only after that can we talk about it” isn’t a negotiation of any kind, but an ultimatum. It’s the adult (chronologically at least) version of “I’m going to take my ball and go home because I didn’t get my way.” Stephen King even used this as the tagline for his villain in “Storm of the Century,” who repeatedly said, “Give me what I want and I’ll go away.” When your basic negotiating tactic has been the basis for a horror novel, perhaps it is time to try a more productive tack.
It is a behavior we have all seen and likely been a part of—at least when we were children. It often is effective because people want things to be settled even if they aren’t settled in a great way. I see it at home every day from my son, but since he is a month old and has yet to master a language I’m fluent in, we can deal with that. From an adult, much less one who has achieved any sort of position of authority, it is much harder to take. Seeing it on the national or international stage is not only mind-boggling, but actively terrifying. Part of being a functional adult is being able to have a rational discussion with people that you may have fundamental disagreements with, but still being able to forge a working relationship based on common interests or needs.
Part of the social contract is embedded in the ability to negotiate and compromise. To paraphrase the great Western philosopher Mick Jagger, we may not always get exactly what we want but we usually get what we need. And that is in many ways the crux of a successful negotiation—need. Remembering that what is needed isn’t necessarily the same thing as what is wanted, and then acting accordingly to ensure that needs are met and what wants can reasonably be satisfied are satisfied. In the heat of the moment, it is easy to lose sight of this, particularly when negotiations are approached as a zero-sum game where the only way for one party to feel that they have won is for the other party to be defeated. That’s not negotiation, that’s combat. Sometimes in a negotiation you do get everything you want and need, but it has to be part of a mutual compact.
The art of creating a mutually beneficial working relationship is one that seems to be ever more elusive in our media-driven culture, where “if it bleeds it leads” has led to major media outlets actively seeking to shape relatively benign stories into stories of savage conflict. A story about two parties sitting down and having a productive discussion with positive—if not necessarily ideal—outcomes for all involved doesn’t have the same kind of media appeal that a narrative of endless violence and unrelenting hatred does. This is something that we can and have to change. Not only because it creates more conflict, but also because it shreds the very fabric of society when people are constantly confronted with glorified scenarios where compromise and negotiations are seen as insignificant or failures of leadership.
One of the skills of leadership is the ability to recognize when to reevaluate a position one has staked out and when to recognize that sometimes a compromise is necessary. That isn’t always the path to popularity, but hopefully principled, adult leadership recognizes that they have left the middle-school mentality long behind them.
Jeremy Yoskowitz is the campus rabbi and assistant director for Jewish life. His column runs every other Thursday. Send Rabbi Jeremy a message on Twitter @TheDukeRav.