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Why Compromise is the Enemy of Agreement

By |November 19, 2018

We’ve all heard the old adage that “compromise is the secret to a good marriage.” It’s not uncommon to hear compromise linked to things like love and compassion. If we’re unwilling to compromise, we fear that we’ll be seen as unfair, rigid, or unempathetic. As kids, most of us were taught that compromise is an ideal method of solving a dispute and an effective framework for agreement (i.e., sharing).

Although the idea of fairness that drives compromise is well-intentioned, the reality of compromise is much less appealing. In an attempt to please both parties, we end up taking a part of what each person wants and blending those parts together to create a subpar agreement that neither party feels genuinely satisfied with. Below, we’ve outlined five compelling reasons why compromise is the enemy of agreement.

1. It Clashes with Human Nature

In a compromise, the goal is to create an agreement where each side’s wins and losses are relatively equal. In other words, each person is asked to concede something and is simultaneously awarded something they want. Everyone's wins and losses are balanced, and everyone feels like they received a fair deal, right?

Wrong. Although the formula for compromise is logically equal, it creates an emotional time bomb. Despite the fact that we see ourselves as a logical species, most of our major decisions and judgements are dictated by emotion and perception, with logic taking a back seat. When it comes to weighing risks and rewards, we’re genetically predisposed to perceive our wins and losses unequally. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman put it in his Nobel Prize winning study, Prospect Theory, “The aggravation that one experiences in losing a sum of money appears to be greater than the pleasure associated with gaining the same amount.” In other words, no matter how much we earn in a compromise, we’re always going to experiences our losses more profoundly than our triumphs.

2. It Breeds Resentment

When you ask someone to give up something they care about in exchange for something else, you threaten their autonomy and devalue their point of view.  Each time you do so, you move one step closer to a summit of frustration.

When we’re forced to live with some degree of risk or loss, our sense of justice is forever warped. Even if we win more than we lose, the instances when we must live with our losses undercuts the satisfaction we feel about the agreement as a whole. Because it was the other person who asked us to compromise (leading to these negative emotions), we naturally harbor a degree of resentment. Like interest on an unpaid credit card bill, resentment only compounds the longer it’s left unaddressed.

In a bargaining situation, you’re setting yourself up for a, “I never should have given/agreed to that!” moment down the road. You can’t build a trusting relationship or prosperous solution if both parties feel slighted.

3. It Encourages Subpar Outcomes

There’s another old saying that “a giraffe is a horse designed by committee.” What you wanted was a better horse; what you got was something that can’t go where horses go.  

In a compromise, you’re attempting to take pieces of two polar solutions and somehow meld them together into one agreement. The result is a giraffe—an agreement that looks and feels like two disparate ideas awkwardly grafted into one.

If you’re focused on compromise, you’re not working to build your counterpart’s trust and organically influence their perceptions and decisions. You’re also not attempting to change the pictures in their head. No matter what compromise you make, it will always be evaluated against their ideal solution and will inevitably come up short. Despite the fact that compromise is often attempted in the spirit of collaboration, it keeps both parties on opposite sides of the negotiation table (your solution versus my solution) rather than uniting them on the same team.

In one sentence—don't end up with a giraffe when you’re expecting to build a horse.

4. It Ignores Implementation

In an attempt to be partisan, we often agree to compromises without truly thinking through the logistics of how it will be carried out or how it will feel to implement.

Two divorced parents might agree to share custody of a child, with each parent getting the child for one half of the year. Although this agreement is (at least superficially) equal, it doesn’t account for implementation. How will the child change schools? What about holidays? Who will be responsible for what? The potential “what abouts” and “what ifs” are endless and unanswered. In an attempt to keep things fair, both parties end up adopting a solution that is nearly impossible to uphold (and sabotaging the agreement before it’s begun).

Then there’s the emotional toll. If you compromise on something that you feel like you shouldn’t have needed to compromise on, following through on that deal down the road is going to be emotionally taxing. You may agree to make a concession in the moment and later discover that the emotional impact of living with that concession is worse than you imagined. If things aren’t going as well as you planned (or the circumstances dictate that you overextend yourself in some way), that moment is going to feel amplified to the extreme. Add a million of those moments up over time and you’ve completely dissolved the relationship. If you don’t account for implementation during the negotiation process, then you’re setting yourself up for failure.

5. It Proves That You Didn’t Explore Your Options

Despite the fact that a willingness to compromise is often likened to being flexible, the opposite is true. If you’re in a position where you’re considering compromise, then you probably haven’t explored all your options. In every negotiation, there are bound to be factors that each side values unequally. These are the issues that inform the “real” issue your counterpart is so focused on. If you haven’t attempted to uncover what other factors, emotions, and perceptions are informing their perspective and value judgements, then you haven’t explored all possibilities for agreement. By unearthing the key drivers that make a deal “valuable” to your counterpart, you’ll gain more influence to combat tunnel vision and single-minded thinking.

So If Compromise Isn’t the Answer, Then What Is?

The answer lies in more effective communication and negotiation skills.  Seek first to understand in order to put them in a place where they want to understand you.  To learn more about how to avoid splitting the difference in your next negotiation, check out our blog, The Negotiation Edge, or schedule a consultation with the Black Swan Group to hone your skills.