Compromise is an essential part of relating with other people. But what happens when it’s missing? And how effective are our demands for it?
Compromise is one of the most essential skills for people to learn. To grow up, we need to work toward agreement with sacrifice and mutual concern. Even to get the things we want most requires we learn how to do it.
But we can’t prescribe compromise or demand it. It has to be sought.
And what if one party sees any compromise as failure?
Imagine we’ve planned a cross-country road trip with a big group of friends. We’re about a year out from it, we’re putting our money down on the extended van rental, the hotel reservations. Money has already started changing hands and details are being confirmed, all the way down to the best places to stop to eat and fuel up.
As the trip gets closer, some of the friends drop out and new friends come in. It’s all on schedule and all the arrangements are still there. So there’s a slightly different group gathered on that fateful day when we all pile into the van. The driver pulls the van out onto the street and we are off on our three-day trip to the coast.
Before we’ve even left the city, the driver says to the group its time to renegotiate the stops. Those stops confirmed almost a year ago.
Specifically, he wants to eliminate all stops for dinner, lunch, or breakfast. No meals for three days. Just the fuel stops to break up our 12-hour days.
This outrages those of us who worry about our blood sugar and those who need breaks. And definitely those who can’t drive 4-6 hour stretches without bathroom breaks. We have practical and moral reasons to object. But most of all, there seems to be no equally fair reason to reopen the negotiation.
But the driver insists. And he has the wheel.
No matter that we agreed to our plan before. No matter how much we compromised before the trip. We planned and are relying on that plan. He doesn’t care that our sitting in these seats at this moment is entirely dependent on that plan. Nor that this is a terrible attempt to get one’s way. He’s got the advantage. And he’s using it.
That’s when you notice that he’s loaded the front console and door pockets with snacks he’s squirreled away. And we notice the new additions to the group have open duffel bags full of Cliff bars at their feet. And the smell! The navigator takes out a bacon breakfast sandwich and our stomachs start to grumble as much as our attitudes.
We respond to the breaking of agreement, the obvious indignity in the plan, and the offensive approach to negotiation.
The driver smiles. He’s now thinking maybe we should take away stops altogether. He says that he was thinking that we could all just eat hot dogs and chips from Speedway or Shell, but now maybe we shouldn’t be allowed to go inside at all.
And you may have noticed there’s food in the car already. Maybe everyone can have some of it. For the right price.
Compromise: the wrong answer to this question
At what point is it acceptable to blame the driver? When does it stop being “both sides”? When do we acknowledge the one-sidedness of a negotiation?
At what point do we stop letting the driver’s frustration be an excuse and start seeing it as the problem? And how do we resolve a hostile one-sided negotiation?
Does this sound like the time for compromise? Isn’t it too early? How can we possibly force compromise? And expecting compromise when there’s a party against it is ridiculous! How do we see that one ending? That they’ll suddenly see the light and come rushing to the bargaining table? Because you like to argue “both sides do it?”
And what of blaming the one side who might be willing to compromise? Demanding they work for it while the other stands firmly against it is a recipe for failure. It’s like adding pepper in hopes that the dish will suddenly taste saltier.
Or imagine you’re the baker dividing the proofing duties between two others: putting one baker in charge of adding sugar and the other the yeast. So the one adds the sugar and we’re all left hoping the other will add the yeast and when they don’t, we just add it ourselves and blame the one adding the sugar for not compelling the other baker to do her job! That would be insane!
To seek compromise is one of those universal values we should always embrace. But it isn’t the only factor. It requires two parties who are willing to seek understanding. But no matter how much we demand it, there are many who refuse to seek it. What then? How do we compel one side to negotiate fairly when they refuse?
Compromise may be the answer, but not to this question. It could make it worse.