When (and How) to Compromise

There’s no such thing as a “win-win” compromise. Trading something you really want just to reach an agreement often results, over time, in regret. An optimal deal is getting what you want every time, though not necessarily in the way you may have thought possible at the outset. Although compromise is invariably well-intentioned, the outcome it creates rarely matches our expectations, if it even holds up.

Those who seek compromise tend to assume an agreement that is mutually fair and reasonable can be readily achieved. The question, however, is whose definition of fair or reasonable are we talking about? What seems fair to one person may not be to another. Our sense of what’s just or right is a product of our intentions, beliefs and expectations as well as our assumptions and feelings about the other party. We value things differently, therefore unequally. Therein lies the downside of compromise. As some suggest, compromise is an agreement in which neither party gets what it really wants.

A compromise requires less preparation, less effort and less negotiating savvy. Negotiating is, by nature, competitive and often adversarial; compromise, conversely, ought to be a more friendly, cooperative conversation. But a presumptive fair deal for both – “let’s just split the difference” – often results in unsatisfying, even nonsensical agreements. Rather than working toward a creative resolution of differences that genuinely addresses the unique needs of both, compromise results in getting (hopefully) one-half of what you truly want. The deal is, by definition, sub-optimal, therefore hard to implement effectively and invariably frustrating.

The assumption that fairness implies mutual satisfaction is fundamentally wrongheaded and ignores the precepts of the human condition. In a negotiation, happiness is a result of the process not the outcome. Having taught this subject for fifty years, I can tell you that one’s satisfaction with the deal achieved is a matter of perception, which is heavily dependent on the use of stress-inducing tactics. Strategically executed, it’s just as possible to achieve superficial happiness in a one-sided deal as it is to feel completely dissatisfied, if not devastated, by a good one. Getting others to trust you, listen to you and sense mutually beneficial motives greatly influences how the other person feels about the agreement reached, however lopsided it may be.

The acceptability of compromise rests on the notion that net wins may lessen the impact of losses, thereby resulting in a balanced accommodation of interests. Such a conclusion fails to acknowledge a core truth of being human: we despise losing something far more than we like gaining something. This bias is best explained by Daniel Kahneman, a behavioral psychologist who won the Nobel Prize for applying this seemingly illogical notion to the field of economics. He found that Wall Street traders perceived wins and losses unequally, even when they were numerically equivalent. In his words, “The aggravation one experiences in losing appears to be greater than the pleasure associated with gaining the same amount.” Applying this principle to a negotiation, no matter how much you win, your perceived losses emotionally overshadow the satisfaction of winning. Compromise primes us for disappointment.

That said, when the outcome isn’t all that important to you, compromise can be an effective way out of a disagreement. If you do value compromise and see it as an avenue to strengthening relationships – a definite win for both – then you must select tactics that reduce buyer remorse and regret. Begin with the understanding that compromise requires mutual sacrifice. Avoid language that creates a sense of loss and defensiveness in others. Since you’re looking to inevitably meet in the middle, slow it down and never get angry or annoyed. Behaviour is contagious. Rushing things creates the perception of pressure and that serves to intensify emotions.

When you present a solution as your idea vs. their idea, or imply right vs. wrong, you amplify the perception of differences and potentially incur antagonism. In such an environment, no party can concede without explicitly lessening their autonomy or integrity. This increases their sense of loss. Rather than presenting your idea or solution at the outset, focus first on building trust, fostering collaboration and gaining a better understanding of your alter-negotiator’s real needs (as opposed to their wants). Ask legitimate questions that encourage a genuine exchange of views, let them control the conversation and encourage both-win ideas. Make deliberate efforts to induce calmness – say “Please speak more slowly … I’d like to help.”

Become a learner, not a teacher. Discover what fuels their concerns or desires. Prepare for negativity and ignore it when aimed at you. Label their emotions to convey your attempt to understand – “Sounds like this really annoys you.” Resist the urge to judge; rather, paraphrase what you hear to ensure you’re both on the same page. Ask them to expand on their thoughts: use questions like “What would you like me to say?” Or “What other options do we have?” These enquiries clarify both common ground and points of division. And that invariably leads to even better questions that can undermine the hard lines of ownership.

There’s an important difference between feeling you’ve understood what others are telling you and convincing them you actually do. Understanding is demonstrated and reinforced by the use of supportive tactics that can enable a genuine connection with others. Appearing spontaneous and flexible, encouraging mutual and uncomplicated problem solving, seeking verification of their suggestions, and presenting creative alternatives that address their stated needs conveys equality in every sense of that word.

You cannot win an argument by arguing with people. Differences become entrenched when a presumed superior grasp of facts is unleashed. You want your adversary to perceive at least an attempt at comprehension rather than reacting with arrogance or intimidation. When people feel they’re not being respected, validated or understood, they cannot process what is being said. When they are able to vacuum their minds, there is a space available in which to place your own contrarian views or advice. The objective in achieving a non-adversarial compromise is to create an open, not closed, mind. With this accomplished, you can move more expeditiously toward your preferred solution.

Finally, eliminate the words fair and reasonable from your negotiating vocabulary. If others insist on using either, simply ask “Can you please provide me with evidence to support that claim?” See “no” as the beginning of an exploration, not the end of the conversation. “No” is often an emotional response to disagreement. It has at least seven different meanings, none of which are what is commonly assumed to be the literal definition. Despite my misgivings about compromise as a method of negotiating, when done properly with limited objectives in mind, it can be a useful approach to achieving quicker, mutually beneficial (albeit not optimal) agreements.