Stephen R. Covey: Synergy: our third alternative to the debt crisis

Stephen R. Covey

Published: Sunday, Aug. 21 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

The process leading up to the recent debt deal in Congress discouraged and downright angered many Americans. Few are satisfied with the results. One battle is over, but the war promises to continue and get worse until both we and our leaders change our very thinking. There is a better way than the constant fighting over compromises that solve nothing.

As with every conflict of two opposing alternatives, there is always a third alternative. The better way is to go for that alternative.

We get to a third alternative through a process called synergy. Synergy is what happens when the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, when 1 + 1 equals 10 or 100 or even 1000. It's the mighty result when two or more respectful human beings decide together to move beyond their preconceived ideas to meet a great challenge.

Synergy is not just resolving a conflict, but transcending a conflict. We go beyond it to something new, something that excites everyone with fresh promise and transforms the future. Synergy is better than my way or your way. It's a higher way.

In the past forty years, I have taught the power of "third-alternative thinking" to dozens of heads of state, corporate leaders, and hundreds of thousands of people across the world. I've seen agonizing conflicts of many years' standing transformed in just a few hours.

The United States was founded on the principle of synergy. When aristocratic planters from the South and bluff Yankees from New England and divergent thinkers such as Adams, Madison and Hamilton came together, they produced a miracle of synergy in the Constitution. It was a totally new thing in the world, a third alternative to despotism on one hand and disintegration on the other.

In the centuries since, spectacular American gains in science, business, art and technology have welled up from a fusion of unbelievably diverse minds from the world over. Our national mode of thinking is synergistic — together, we are always cooking up better ideas.

People call for compromise on the debt issue, but compromise is not the same as synergy. In a compromise, 1 + 1 = 1 1/2. In other words, everyone loses something. Both sides make concessions, neither side is truly satisfied, and the conflict is just postponed. It's called "kicking the can down the road," which is precisely what happened in Washington on Sunday. On the vital issue of the deficit, we should expect more from our leaders than a mindset of compromise. As Americans, we should expect synergy.

How do you get to synergy?

The first step is the hardest. You have to be willing to put aside your position long enough to understand the other side. "You differ from me. That means I need to listen to you." If the two of us share the same viewpoint, one of us is unnecessary; the more you differ, the more I can learn from your perspective. In Washington, though, the rule is the opposite: "You differ from me. That means I need to fight you."

If our representatives really want synergy instead of scoring points on the other side, they will stop and truly listen until they deeply understand each other. This is a prerequisite to synergy. I challenge Republicans to make the Democrats' case back to them as well as or better than the Democrats can, and vice versa. Only then will they genuinely grasp and empathize with the convictions of the other. Only then will all sides escape the psychological suffocation in the phrase "You just don't understand."

The next step is to ask this question: "Now, are you willing to look for a solution that is better than what either one of us has come up with yet?" This question can change everything. If the answer is yes, we can put aside all of our prejudices and preconceptions. The energy wasted on conflict gets rechanneled as we set out on a path of creativity rather than confrontation. We have no idea what valuable new discoveries await us as our energy flows toward something new and better.

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