Memo to the Super-Committee

“There is no limit to what can be accomplished if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

Over the years, this comment has been attributed to figures as diverse as Nelson Mandela, Harry Truman, former UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden, and Ronald Reagan.  The earliest citation I could find identifies Ralph Waldo Emerson as its originator.

It is one of my favorite notions, and I find it particularly apt -- and missing -- from the ongoing acrimony in our political process.  The story that brought it to mind this morning is the impending failure of the so-called Bi-Partisan Super-Committee.

Every voice I heard lifted from the Sunday morning talk shows stridently, unapologetically placed blame for the current impasse solely on the other side.

How have we reached this point where public discourse has become such a zero-sum game?

I am stunned that our leaders can’t seem to get themselves to move from positional bargaining to joint problem solving.  Granted, that’s harder and takes more effort, but isn’t this a situation where you want a lot of effort put in?

There is merit to the idea that these tough times call for shared sacrifice.  Meaning the way you know you’ve got a good deal is when everyone walks away unhappy.  But I think we can do better than cynicism.

It’s time for some serious reframing in those conference rooms where negotiations are taking place.  Each side has to loosen its grip on its brand of certainty long enough to be curious about the other.  You’ve got to get to understanding before you can worry about agreement.

Here’s a radical idea to go along with that:  Each side needs to recognize the complexity in the situation and acknowledge THEIR OWN contribution to it.  No kidding.  Acknowledging contribution does not mean accepting blame.

And all of this should be done in public, not just in the conference rooms.  Give the rest of us the chance to see and hear what trust, respect, and courage look and sound like.

I’ve seen these sorts of conversations, and they take people away from the limitations of either-or and win-lose thinking and move them toward something bigger.  Solutions appear that no one imagined at the start.

I can hear the objections already: That’s not how it works.  We don’t have time for this.  They’ll never go for it.  We can’t afford it.  You don’t understand.

Actually, I think we all understand.  And we know what’s really at stake here.