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The Damaging Decline of Compromise

And why it's so important that we seek to revive it.

Compromise is a major strategy for conflict resolution and is essential for any working relationship—whether in our personal lives, the workplace, in our communities or as citizens. But it’s clearly evident that our capacity to compromise has in recent years greatly declined.

I’ve observed this in my practice as I hear clients describe rigidly holding on to expectations in their most meaningful relationships. It’s similarly evident in the workplace where many corporations have increasingly focused attention predominantly on shareholders—with reduced concern for their workers and even the consumer. And, regardless of their pros and cons, the vast reduction in unions further reflects decreased compromise.

The damaging decline of compromise is certainly revealed in the paralysis of our government due to the intensity of partisanship. And it is further revealed in the barking raised voices of guests on newscasts who talk over each other—each one trying their best to state their point with little attention to that of others. They offer sound bites intended to convince the audience of their opinion and show little attempt to hear each other out genuinely. And even the best newscasters often support this verbal combat in an effort to gain ratings rather than accord.

Contributions to declining compromise

Numerous factors have fueled the far-reaching decline of compromise in recent years. For example, some studies suggest a general increase in narcissism over the past two decades—self-absorption that leaves us with diminished empathy and concern for others.

Others cite the decrease in actual face-to-face personal interactions, whether with family, friends, neighbors, or the large groups to which we belong. We bury our faces in screens in ways that make us less attuned to the nuances of differences and uniqueness amongst people in our lives. As a result, we define them in our minds with broad labels rather take the time to really be present with their true complexity. Harshly negative comments to articles and videos on the Internet further reflect this rigidity of thought, as well as the demonization that only further undermines compromise in our relationships.

123rfStock Photo/Borislay Marinic
Word salad-compromise
Source: 123rfStock Photo/Borislay Marinic

Our culture has glorified individualism from the time of our nation’s revolution. And we take this attitude to new heights as we glorify the importance of individual growth and happiness. It then makes sense that many of us may feel less inclined to be sensitive to the needs of others.

Additionally, our increased tendency to overly value competition has further undermined our openness for compromise. And the more intensely competitive we become, the more task-focused and less people-oriented we become. It is then no wonder that, fueled by our desire to achieve or win, we may be quick to feel threatened by taking time even to consider others—an essential aspect of compromise.

Perhaps another contribution to a decline in compromise is related to an observed increase in the percentage of individuals who exhibit and insecure attachment style (Konrath et al.,2014). Attachment style is the model for relationships which we internalize in our early years that can influence our relationships as an adult.

Those who have a secure attachment style have experienced sufficient consistency and emotional connection with caretakers that provide a foundation for trust and genuine connection as an adult. By contrast, having an insecure attachment style has been associated with the inconsistency of genuine emotional availability, presence, and soothing by one’s early caretakers.

As an adult, an insecure attachment style may lead to anxiety about closeness, heightened distrust, and even avoidance of connection. Those who are avoidant may withdraw and shut down in response to conflict. Those with anxiety may demand attention and employ aggressive and hostile strategies as part of conflict management.

In spite of our past openness to compromise, doing so has increasingly been denounced and as being equated with “weakness,” “settling,” and “selling out.” Over time, it seems that compromise is viewed as a threat to our sense of self, a blow to our egos. And all too often our perceived threat is just that—one that is perceived rather than being a genuine threat to our emotional or physical well-being. We want what we want when we want it, and we don’t wish to be flexible.

Some of us may believe that past compromise has resulted in our feeling ignored and discounted—even powerless and frustrated. We may experience a sense of threat that fuels anger—a reaction that diminishes trust and nourishes rigidity that further reduces our openness for meaningful dialogue and mutual understanding. At such moments, we may be blinded by distrust, even when faced with the truth.

Elements of effective compromise

Compromise with regard to conflict resolution calls for respecting others and ourselves. It rests on developing trust and mutual collaboration. It requires that we can build consensus with others, a process that requires open communication. These are key elements of compromise for dealing with personal, intimate relationships as well as in our extended families, as members of a professional organization, a religious group, community, or as citizens of a town, city, state or national government.

Each of us is unique in personality, and as such, we bring to our relationships different priorities in our needs, desires, and willingness to compromise. As a partner in an intimate relationship, we may be called upon to compromise with regard to finances, home management, physical intimacy, parenting, or how we spend time with each other and with family and friends.

Healthy compromise is built on an overriding openness to respect and hear out another’s attitude and feeling. It rests on overarching mutual respect for each other and a general sense of coming to the discussion in good faith. While influenced by the desire to gain power, is not held hostage by it.

Knowing ourselves and what we hold to be important helps us to engage with greater commitment when we do compromise. In fact, clarity of self-awareness helps us to better identify those issues over which we will compromise. Such knowledge enables us to assertively define our needs and desires in ways that are neither passive or aggressive.

Effective compromise involves a commitment to a higher desire or need than just those of the individuals forming a compromise. For example, compromise in a personal relationship works best when we can focus not only on our individual needs or those of our partner but also on what might be best for the relationship. A constructive compromise entails a commitment to the relationship, in a sense, this third entity, that transcends our immediate individual wants in the short term with an openness to view the benefits to the relationship in the long term.

These same principles apply in the workplace. In fact, while there may be much competition amongst employees and between departments, the survival of a company depends to a great degree on healthy compromise. I’m often reminded that a major explanation for the financial failures of 2007 was that the risk-takers of our financial institutions failed to pay attention to the cautionary warnings of the more risk-averse analytic departments.

In the past, compromise at both the local and national level has been rooted in allegiance to some higher cause that goes beyond just the concerns of one group. It seems, for example, that government at the highest level has been supported by our shared allegiance to the higher principle of democracy.

Unfortunately, the outcomes of such compromises have not been well received by those who believe that compromise is a defeat. They view such agreements primarily as a “watered-down” version of a policy that does not strictly adhere to their blueprint for how things should be.

The primary desire to gain control and power is an outgrowth of an ineffective compromise. Unfortunately, this solution can be just as destructive for personal relationships as in other areas of our lives, including our government. While gaining control may seem highly appealing in the short term, the cost is the cultivation of resentments, conflict, anger, and even aggression.

Resolving differences without constructive compromise fuels a long-term outcome that is destructive for all concerned. And unlike a personal relationship, where individuals can choose to end it, the stakes are much higher for a country whose citizens fail to compromise.

Compromise requires taking time to listen, recognizing that we have differences, but at the same time, have basic desires and needs that are alike. We just disagree on how to meet them. Whether the desire is for safety, security, power over one’s life, the opportunity for advancement, or overall happiness, we need to include compromise as part of a discussion for moving forward together.

While the media emphasizes the political divide, often in ways that heighten it, the real divide in our individual and group relationships is between those who can be open for discussion and understanding each other and those who are closed to it.

It is a division between those who can cultivate greater compassion for each other to take the time for shared discussion and genuine dialogue. And it is a schism between those who do and those who do not recognize the importance of compromise as a major strategy for effective conflict resolution.

Cooperation that supports such compromise is as important for individual relationships as it is for our society as a whole–and is essential if we are to thrive individually and as a society.


Konrath, S., Chopik, W., Hsing, C., et. al. (2014. Changes in adult attachment styles in American college students over time: a meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, Vol. 18(4)326-348.

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