The Art of Compromise


Not many people like to compromise, and why should they? A compromise means two people need to exchange something, but one or both can’t easily come to an agreement. Whether it’s negotiating a work-related partnership or negotiating who will do the dishes at home, we want things to work out in our favor.

When we use the term “compromise,” we often use it to describe something in which we lost more than we gained, but coming to a compromise doesn’t have to be a losing game. Notice how the word breaks down: “com” and “promise,” or in other words, “we make a pledge together.” That means you should be getting something out of the deal.

Here are a few guidelines I’ve found useful when reaching a compromise. While I might not always get the most out of a deal, I try to keep perspective on what it means to compromise and always be looking ahead.

Don’t Compromise on Core Values

If you forget the rest of this article, remember this: don’t change your ethical stance for a compromise. If you lose a little time or money during a deal, you might regret momentarily, but if you ignore your ethics, you will kick yourself for a lifetime. Don’t know where to draw the line? If the deal makes you feel uneasy, then listen to your inner voice. I do an intuition check before proceeding on any compromise, and if I can’t articulate on why something “feels wrong,” I talk to a mentor, counselor, or good friend. They almost always verify what my gut tells me: that compromises aren’t worth bending my fundamental values.

Take Time to Understand the Other Party

This should go without saying, but in a compromise, you need to understand the motivation of the other party. As a project manager, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dealt with co-workers who essentially want the same thing done in the same way, but they talk about it in different terms. Sometimes the sheer act of listening can turn a compromise into a “win-win,” where no one has to give up anything.

Even if you can’t reach that “win-win” situation, understanding and empathizing with the other party can help turn negotiations to your favor. Think about it: people want to be heard and understood. So really listen to the other party by giving them a chance to speak. For bonus points, try a trick a good psychologist friend of mine taught me: repeat back their opinions so they know you understand their views. Also, use “we” instead of “you vs. me” language to foster a spirit of togetherness. People are much more willing to cut a break for someone they feel “gets it.”

Determine Multiple Ways to Get What You Want

Sometimes you find yourself needing to make a compromise because there’s something you want very badly. Let’s say you’ve just had a baby, but you still want to go to the movie theater with your buddies. You used to go out every weekend, but your spouse doesn’t want to babysit every Friday night while you’re hanging out at the Cineplex. So it’s time to compromise.

Here is a good time to determine the many ways you can get what you want. Obviously your first choice is to have your spouse or yourself at home to watch the baby, but you could also:

  1. Have a close relative or friend watch the baby.
  2. Hire a regular babysitter every week.
  3. Offer your spouse a night off every week to go and have fun while you babysit.
  4. Decide to go out once a month (instead of every week), so it’s more doable for your spouse.
  5. Give up movie night in lieu of a weekend getaway with your buddies every few months.

Each scenario has different pros and cons for you and your spouse. Having a variety of ways to get what you want will make it easier to figure out the best compromise for both of you. Come up with your own list, but be open to listening to the options from the other side of the table.

Consider the Long Term Benefits

Not all compromises give each party equal rewards. In my experience, the opposite is true: compromise generally means one party comes out more ahead than another. So why should you make a compromise where you lose a lot and gain very little?

Sometimes you do it in exchange for a long-term benefit. Consider a scenario where the boss asks you to work extra each night on her personal project. No one else in the office is asked. She’ll put a little extra in your paycheck, but not really enough to make up for the hours you will work. Why would you take this job? Because the project might give you the experience you need to get promoted. You might differentiate yourself with your boss, and she’ll recognize your talents over your peers. It’s a risk, but you might decide the long-term benefits are worth it to you.

On the flip side, if you don’t see many long-term benefits (other than the boss continually asking you to work extra when no one else does) you can decline the position. Such is the power of looking ahead to benefits.

Know When it’s Okay to Just Give In (or Give Up)

Let’s say you’re in a position where there’s no ethical dilemma, but you have been asked to make a compromise that has no short or long-term benefits for you. Here, you have to know when it’s okay to either just give in or give up. If you make the choice to give in without any expectation of tangible rewards, then you have to decide you’re okay with a “feel good” reward of simply making the right choice. Sometimes the world just works this way, so adopt a positive attitude and know another compromise will likely work in your favor.

If the “feel good” reward doesn’t do it for you, then you may have to step out of negotiations altogether. This will likely have consequences, but it may be necessary for you in the long run. I have experienced both personal and professional effects of “giving up” (the first ended in a break-up, the second in getting me passed up for a promotion). It took an emotional toll on me during those times, but I’m glad I did it. Both situations made me a stronger person, and in hindsight, I made the right decision, even if it caused some short-term pain.

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Hopefully these guidelines will give you a few tools the next time you’re faced with compromise. Are there any you would add to the list?

Photo by the half-blood prince

6 thoughts on “The Art of Compromise”

  1. Finding the balance between giving in and holding fast to our position can be hard. It is called being human.

    Thanks for a great article and the reminder that we don’t have to compromise our values to find a solution.

    Dan Garner

  2. I appreciate the emphasis on intuition and the inner voice in this process. It’s easy to come to a logical compromise if we just detach and shoot for the objective middle. But you’re right, we then might come to a conclusion that pacifies both parties but rubs our consciences the wrong way.

    Nice reminder!

    1. Thanks, Sarah! I’m a big advocate of always giving your inner voice weight when it comes to decision making. Even if your inner choice isn’t always “right,” it can often provide insight into your motivation when you give it a closer examination.

  3. If more people thought this way it would certainly be an easier world to get along in. It’s too bad so many people are just out for themselves. Thanks for your wisdom, it’s truly enlightening.

    ~ Bloom

    1. Thanks, Bloom. Of course, you should have your interests in mind because you don’t want to get the complete wrong end of the stick. But you should also look at the big picture and know that life is about winning some, losing some.

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