Presidential Lecture on Listening and Compromise

President Obama came to prominence in 2004 with a speech in which he argued that there isn’t a red America and a blue America but rather a single United States of America.  Looking back twelve years later, this may seem like a rather odd notion in a country riven by intense political polarization.

President Obama has a history of seeking understanding and compromise by people with different perspectives.  This was particularly illustrated by his speech, A More Perfect Union, in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright controversy during the 2008 campaign.  In that speech, he sympathetically described frustrations of many  black and white people in our country.

Yesterday, he gave the commencement address at Howard University and appealed for people to listen to those we disagree with and seek compromise. Addressing “African-American youths who have fueled a new civil rights protest movement during his presidency, Mr. Obama urged them to adopt a more disciplined form of activism that goes beyond indignant rhetoric and uncompromising demands.”

He argued that activists must develop strategies that “include listening to those with whom they disagree and compromising when necessary to achieve their goals.”

“If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want,” the president said, adding that such an approach leads to “a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair, and that’s never been the source of our progress.”

Although the President addressed his remarks to one particular group, I think that this message generally is relevant to all.

“Compromise” is a dirty word to people who interpret it to mean sacrificing important values or merely accepting zero-sum resolutions without addressing each party’s interests.

However, sometimes it is appropriate to “bargain with the devil,” as Bob Mnookin argues.  And sometimes zero-sum exchanges are better than each side’s MLATNA.  But by carefully listening to others, as the President advocates, it is possible to create value and make social progress.


4 thoughts on “Presidential Lecture on Listening and Compromise”

  1. Yes thank you John for this and Obama for urging us on in the hard work of not seeing each other as cardboard stereotyped cutouts but rather as fellow human beings.

  2. Thanks so much for this, John. I felt, at times, like President Obama was speaking directly to us and to our field.

  3. Unfortunately, President Obama had to deliver another speech decrying horrible gun violence. I found the speech quite moving.

    Consistent with his prior speeches, he advocated seeing the world through others’ eyes, mutual understanding, negotiation, and reconciliation. Here’s an excerpt:

    “That’s what we must pray for, each of us. A new heart. Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.

    “That’s what we’ve seen in Dallas these past few days, and that’s what we must sustain. Because with an open heart, we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes. So that maybe the police officer sees his own son in that teenager with a hoodie, who’s kind of goofing off but not dangerous.

    “And the teenager — maybe the teenager will see in the police officer the same words, and values and authority of his parents.

    “With an open heart, we can abandon the overheated rhetoric and the oversimplification that reduces whole categories of our fellow Americans, not just opponents, but to enemies.

    “With an open heart, those protesting for change will guard against reckless language going forward. Look at the model set by the five officers we mourn today. Acknowledge the progress brought about by the sincere efforts of police departments like this one in Dallas. And embark on the hard, but necessary work of negotiation, the pursuit of reconciliation. With an open heart, police departments will acknowledge that just like the rest of us, they’re not perfect. That insisting we do better to root out racial bias is not an attack on cops, but an effort to live up to our highest ideals.”

    Former President George W. Bush, speaking at the same event, echoed that sentiment. “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions, and this has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose.”

  4. This post was based on an article in the New York Times. The White House just released the full text of the President’s speech, which I think is worth reading, even if you don’t agree with all of it. Below are more excerpts of his speech. (I should also note that Robert Benjamin, a prolific writer for, has written a lot about American cultural attitudes about negotiation and how dispute resolution theory can be applied to American politics.)

    “And finally, change requires more than just speaking out — it requires listening, as well. In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise. When I was a state senator, I helped pass Illinois’s first racial profiling law, and one of the first laws in the nation requiring the videotaping of confessions in capital cases. And we were successful because, early on, I engaged law enforcement. I didn’t say to them, oh, you guys are so racist, you need to do something. I understood, as many of you do, that the overwhelming majority of police officers are good, and honest, and courageous, and fair, and love the communities they serve.

    “And we knew there were some bad apples, and that even the good cops with the best of intentions — including, by the way, African American police officers — might have unconscious biases, as we all do. So we engaged and we listened, and we kept working until we built consensus. And because we took the time to listen, we crafted legislation that was good for the police — because it improved the trust and cooperation of the community — and it was good for the communities, who were less likely to be treated unfairly. And I can say this unequivocally: Without at least the acceptance of the police organizations in Illinois, I could never have gotten those bills passed. Very simple. They would have blocked them.

    . . .

    “We remember Dr. King’s soaring oratory, the power of his letter from a Birmingham jail, the marches he led. But he also sat down with President Johnson in the Oval Office to try and get a Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act passed. And those two seminal bills were not perfect — just like the Emancipation Proclamation was a war document as much as it was some clarion call for freedom. Those mileposts of our progress were not perfect. They did not make up for centuries of slavery or Jim Crow or eliminate racism or provide for 40 acres and a mule. But they made things better. And you know what, I will take better every time. I always tell my staff — better is good, because you consolidate your gains and then you move on to the next fight from a stronger position.

    . . .

    “So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that — no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths. Because as my grandmother used to tell me, every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk. Let them talk. If you don’t, you just make them a victim, and then they can avoid accountability.

    “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge them. Have the confidence to challenge them, the confidence in the rightness of your position. There will be times when you shouldn’t compromise your core values, your integrity, and you will have the responsibility to speak up in the face of injustice. But listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas. And you might as well start practicing now, because one thing I can guarantee you — you will have to deal with ignorance, hatred, racism, foolishness, trifling folks. (Laughter.) I promise you, you will have to deal with all that at every stage of your life. That may not seem fair, but life has never been completely fair. Nobody promised you a crystal stair. And if you want to make life fair, then you’ve got to start with the world as it is.”

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