It’s not about this one little thing. It’s about the principle.

It’s not about this one little thing. It’s about the principle.

  • May 22, 2014

We may have noble intentions when we stand up for what we believe in.  But when we blindly insist on principles, we make bad decisions.

Everybody in the peaceful conflict resolution business has heard the sentence “it’s about the principle” more often than they care to remember. It’s not about Richie’s remark before he got grounded – it’s about the principle that he must be respectful. It’s not about the other party’s request to extend the court deadline – it’s about the principle that we can’t let him drag out the settlement negotiations.  We know this one incident is not such a big deal, but we need to stick firmly to the principle.

Or do we?

I believe we should stand up for our principles. Sometimes, however, we are so blinded by our commitment to our principles that we lose sight of the bigger picture, we trample on more important things in the process, and we shoot ourselves in the foot.

Of course Richie should be respectful towards his parents. But perhaps he was just completely stressed out that day. Perhaps grounding him would confirm his suspicion that his parents don’t care about what’s going on in his life and just expect him to be perfect, and he doesn’t see the point of being respectful in the future. Perhaps listening and graciously forgiving would show him that his parents understand him and love him no matter what, and motivate him to be more respectful in the future. Is grounding him because of “the principle” really the best decision?

Of course the other party should not be allowed to drag out the settlement negotiations. But perhaps he honestly needs more time to digest the latest proposal, and a gesture of goodwill would go a long way in reaching an agreement. Perhaps he really is trying to drag things out, but you could accommodate him anyway and benefit from that later in the negotiation when you need a favor in return. Perhaps a refusal to extend the deadline would put an end to the negotiations altogether, and you would kick yourself all the way to the courthouse. Is declining the extension request because of “the principle” really the best decision?

I believe in fighting for our principles. But sometimes the better decision is not to fight.

Let’s say some guy pushes me against the wall and demands I give him my wallet. Even though this fortunately is a hypothetical, I have strong feelings about principles here. I work for my money, and it goes against my principles when someone just expects a handout. I don’t like being bullied, and it goes against my principles to just roll over. As a woman, I have especially strong feelings about being forced to do something against my will, and it goes against my principles to just be a victim. As a martial artist, I know a self-defense move or two, and it goes against my principles to just do nothing.

To me, it’s not about the money in my wallet. It’s about the principle. But he’s bigger and stronger than me. Is fighting for my principles really the best decision? The way I see it, I have two options:

Option No. 1: I fight. Big Dude will also go to fight mode, and I will go to the hospital or the morgue right along with my principles.

Option No. 2: I give him my wallet. I take a mental picture of Big Dude. When he walks away, I say a little prayer of gratitude that I’m alive and well. Then I go to the police. And I live to fight for my principles another day.

Staying alive is more important here than standing up for my beliefs and teaching someone a lesson out of anger. Having a positive relationship with your teenager is more important than a rigid enforcement of rules out of indignation. Having a productive settlement negotiation is more important than drawing an arbitrary timeline in the sand out of frustration.

When you hear yourself saying “It’s not about …, it’s about the principle” – ask yourself: Is fighting on principle really the best decision here? Or am I endangering something that’s more important? Could this be the time to temporarily set aside this principle so I can live to fight another day?


  1. Marie

    The first step is recognizing what I am doing and why I am doing it.
    I like your focus on hierarchy of principles or values. We (and the other person) are more complex than just one driving force. Having the flexibility to move from one value to another still keeps us in our value system. Thanks for the reminder to be flexible. There is more than one way to live with one’s principles without remaining in conflict.

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