Friday, August 03, 2012

Compromise is a key skill many don't use

I’m in a love-hate relationship with this election year.
I love that every four years we decide on a president (qualms about the Electoral College notwithstanding) and that we consider seriously and passionately the future of our country.
I’m less enamored of extremists who don’t comprise the majority but nevertheless taint the experience for the rest of us.
Life would be dull if we all thought the same and acted the same and voted the same. But I’m afraid we’re losing the art of compromise.
I have a few Facebook friends who can be counted on to take predictable far-leaning sides — right or left — and pile on a heap of vitriol. They don’t just disagree. They take time to insult those who disagree with them.
I’ve given up on most television commentary for this reason. And I limit how many online comments I read because, good gracious, there’s a lot of anger out there. Health care reform, policies of fast-food restaurants and department stores, access to guns — folks aren’t just passionate, they’re often rabid.
So it was refreshing to attend a recent conference at which thousands of passionate people gathered but, as far as I could tell, left extremism at home.
Volunteers from across the state gathered in Austin last weekend for the annual Texas PTA Summer Leadership Seminar.
Partisan politics weren’t on the agenda. Just about everything else was: standardized tests, nutrition, bullying, physical education, the environment, taxes, divorce, addiction, the arts, sex, social media.
I participated in workshops with parents from wealthy Houston suburbs and rural Hill Country towns. Some wore $200 blue jeans. Others wore matching, bedazzled, leopard-print T-shirts emblazoned with letters shouting “PTA.”
At one of my tables, there was a lone dad surrounded by a mix of stay-at-home and work-outside-the-home moms. We represented at least three ethnic groups.
Despite our differences, we share a common goal: advocating for children — and not just for our own sons or daughters.
There’s a place for advocating for only your own family, but when you commit to PTA, you’re on board for all the kids at your campus and even in your district, your state and the nation. Conference discussions were spirited and thoughtful but never mean. Somehow we kept our passion in check with civility.
As a veteran of PTA campus board meetings, I know this isn’t always the case. Extremism and hostility can creep in even when a group shares the same goals.
Kyle Ward, executive director of the Texas PTA, addressed that very issue during one of his workshops. “Where there is passion, there is often conflict,” he said.
We explored some typical conflicts in volunteer settings (they’re not much different than in any other setting). We talked about the value of building up rather than tearing down, of complimenting rather than insulting.
Some people, Ward said, are too quick to give an opinion, to spout off without thinking. But there’s rarely a reason to rush an opinion, statement or solution.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said, “to say ‘Let me think about that and get back to you.’”
That’s good advice for working with volunteers, coworkers and friends — in real life or online. If more folks could adopt that attitude, I might fall in love with election season all over again.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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