The Magical Middle Ground

One of the most dangerous myths in conflict management is that of the Middle Ground. The Middle Ground is seen as a magical land which, once you reach it, will bring happiness and co-operation where grief and strife used to reign. “We were locked in this awful argument about this issue, but then we found the Middle Ground and POOOOF! Everyone was happy!” The quantity of wishful thinking that goes into this is almost staggering.

First of all, if the middle ground was amenable to all, there wouldn’t bloody be a conflict in the first place. Conflicts don’t occur just over misunderstandings. Sometimes people genuinely need/want incompatible things. In order to find a middle ground, people must be willing not just to negotiate (i.e. to talk about the issue), but also to compromise (i.e. to potentially settle for less than they need/want). Whenever that is not the case, as Marc MacYoung says, “the middle-ground has to be fought for.”

In fact, you may not have to fight just to gain it, but also to hold it. Unless everyone truly and willingly embraces the middle ground, the conflict will continue because disgruntled or disaffected people may continue pushing towards their original goal. This can be a particular problem when people feel righteous about their positions; even people who are willing to compromise on non-essential practical issues may fight to the last breath “for what is Right”. (If you think you’re above this pettiness and so should be everyone else, would you willingly compromise on something you consider abominable, like human trafficking or pedophilia?)

Secondly, sometimes the middle ground is not a place you want to be. Forgive me my now customary reductio ad absurdum, but if someone wants to rape you, getting him to only stick it in half way is probably not an acceptable solution. There are plenty of situations when someone wants something that is neither fair nor acceptable. Giving in part way, while it may appease them in the short term, may not work for you. The middle ground approach hinges on the fact that everyone’s position is reasonable, which is patently not always the case. This can be particularly hard to spot if the unreasonable person is you. (Hint: if you make a request and everyone’s reaction is “are you fucking shitting me?”, you may be the only person seeing the light, but you may also be completely in the wrong.)

Thirdly, giving in part way to someone’s requests/demands is not guaranteed to create a bond of friendship and respect; in fact, it can do precisely the opposite. No schoolyard bully ever became someone’s friend because they gave up their lunches without a fight. The Danegeld did not make the Viking like or respect the English. Essentially, if someone is trying to screw you and you give in part way, all you’ve achieved is showing them that you are willing to be screwed. The next time they’ll probably ask for more, because they know that the strategy works.

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