Conflict and discord often occur because individuals and groups disagree about the resolution of different social, economic, or political goals. Resolution of conflict as we have discussed in earlier newsletters is ideally expected to occur when through effective communication joint understanding of different points of view appear, common goals are identified, a consensus among the parties is created, trust is established, cooperation arises, solutions are shared, and everyone is satisfied. Hence, as promised by Robert Browning in his poem Pippa Passes “All’s right with the world”, or as the French satirist Voltaire wrote in 1759 in his novella Candide: or, The Optimist, all will work out in the end because “It is the best of all possible worlds!”
Sadly, and cynically, neither the conflict resolution process nor the end result is always so ordered and optimistic. An important component of reaching a state of cooperation among differing parties is “compromise.” Synonyms for compromise are accommodation, concession, give and take, negotiation, deal, concurrence, and bargain (cruder alternatives are haggle and horse trade.)
Why is the process of compromise so difficult? One would think that sharing responsibility, meeting each other halfway, and finding a happy medium would always be a common goal. The difficulty is the other viewpoint about the compromise process. Some people with strong convictions would argue that compromise is morally and ethically wrong, because:
- The act requires accepting standards that are lower than desirable,
- The process is unseemly, unprincipled and dishonest,
- Any compromise involves not merely getting less than you want, but also, thanks to your opponents, getting less than you think you deserve,
- It is a concession to something derogatory or prejudicial, and
- It is a surrender of principles.
The word even has common negative connotations since one speaks of being caught in a “compromising” situation. Similarly, “Kompromat” is a Russian derivative word from the English that means a folder of evidence or materials to be used to blackmail a target.
Nonetheless, a Pew Research study completed in 2014** concluded most Americans seem to prefer an outcome of 50/50 where splitting the difference is the right end-result. Most Americans want their leaders to compromise, 56% prefer leaders who are willing to compromise, and only 39% prefer them to “stick to their positions.”
Conflict management advisors suggest that using compromise to resolve a disagreement or dispute is appropriate in the following situations: ##
- When the organization will benefit from both parties giving in on some demands.
- When differences have been “aired” and there is a need to move forward.
- When it is unrealistic to totally satisfy everyone involved in the disagreement.
- When the goals of both parties have equal importance and merit.
- When the situation requires a quick resolution, even if temporary.
- When there are options, and negotiation will help to reach agreement.
- When “splitting the difference” is the fair and best solution to a potential stalemate.
- When maintaining relationships is more important than continued disagreement.
- When the parties can agree to disagree and live with the decision.
Mediators agree that compromise is difficult but “governing a democracy without compromise is impossible,” and they point out that compromise is “the hardest way to govern except all the others.” ***
So what mindset is required that lead to a favorable climate for compromise?
A compromising mindset sees compromise not as an occasion to rigidly stand on principle or even abandon principles to reach agreement, but as an opportunity to adjust one’s goals to improve the status quo. Gutmann and Thompson*** propose this will included “principled prudence” and “mutual respect.”
Principled prudence: One needs to distinguish between compromises of principle and compromises of interest, i.e. choices between values and things. Interests tend to be choices like income, wealth, or objects money can buy. Nonmaterial interests that could be sacrificed might be pride, stature, reputation, or specific judgements. One might also accept some compromises of principle, but not those that would violate a basic human value of some kind. Avishai Margalit has argued there are “decent” vs “indecent” compromises, where indecent ones would perpetuate cruelty and humiliation. ##
Mutual respect: The second requirement for the compromising mindset is to avoid the willful opposition and mistrust that negates any possibility of compromise. It is necessary to deliberately negotiate in good faith and restrain suspicions of ulterior motives. It is required to accept that one’s adversaries are also motivated on honest principles and sincerely desire a resolution that would end conflict, provide a useful solution, and allow everyone to move on.
Neither of the mindset suggestions above are easy. Often the path between right and wrong solutions are extremely fuzzy, and intense frustration can lead again to mutual mistrust.
So, given a compromising mindset with principled prudence and mutual respect, how else does one engage in compromise? A skilled negotiator must be prepared to:
- Let things go once a concession is made…
- Rethink expectations and reprioritize goals….
- Show appreciation for concessions made by the other party….
- Share beliefs, emotions and sincerity at each stage….
- Remain optimistic….
- Avoid inappropriate and premature celebrations that might jeopardize any final agreement by demeaning, disparaging, or belittling difficult concession made by the other side….
Perhaps the best approach to all such problems of compromise is to replace the mantra to “never surrender” with the intention to “never give up” without a balanced solution.
**http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/section-4-political-compromise-and-divisive-policy-debates/ Consistent liberals overwhelmingly prefer leaders who compromise (by an 82% to 14% margin), while consistent conservatives voice a preference for leaders who stick to their positions by a 63% to 32% margin.
*** Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, The Case for Compromise, Harvard Magazine, July 2012
## Avishai Margalit, 2009, On Compromises and Rotten Compromises, Princeton University Press, 240 pp.
### Dale Eilerman, 2006, Agree to Disagree – The Use of Compromise in Conflict Management, Mediate.com https://www.mediate.com/articles/eilermanD7.cfm