Mastering the Art of Compromise

Before you start, know what you want.

Posted Aug 14, 2011

Sam is thinking about summer vacation. What he would really like to do is go camping and hiking for a week in a national park. But Sam also knows that his wife Ann really doesn't like camping, so he thinks maybe the beach would work. But also Ann tends to get bored at the beach, but maybe if they only went for a long weekend that would work out. Okay, he decides, he'll propose that to Ann.

It's likely that Ann is doing some similar thinking - trying to figure out not only what she wants to do, but also preemptively thinking about what Sam doesn't want to do. She may really want to spend a few days in a big city seeing the sights, but knows that Sam isn't much of a city guy. So she starts thinking about something else. Camping isn't something she is crazy about, but the beach is something she can handle for a few days. Good enough.

So then they sit down to talk about summer vacation and -- whoa - each suggests the beach - unbelievable! This is great (and what a relief)! But will they both be happy...sort of, kinda, maybe.

Compromise is part of life and part of relationships, and most couples over time become acutely sensitive to each other's likes and dislikes. The type of thinking that Sam and Ann are doing certainly is considerate and avoids conflict. But the problem is that it dilutes the decision-making process. By their mental pre-compromising, the end decision is a watered-downed, watered-down version of each's original. It's good enough, perhaps, but not close to what each really wants. Over time with many many of these compromises stacking up, it's easy for someone to feel that her life has strayed way off course, and get resentful. Or have a midlife crisis.

There's another way of approaching compromise - from a stronger position of clarity and assertiveness. Rather than compromising down their decisions before the discussion starts, Sam and Ann can both come to the table with what they have in mind - no walking on eggshells, being timid: I want to go camping, I want to go to the city. Now that doesn't mean they can't be open and sensitive to the other - no "My Way or the Highway" attitude. But the negotiation and compromise starts from a more honest stance, and is more likely to represent what each wants.

The key is stepping back and being clear in your own mind what you want before you start talking: Not what you should do, not what will make the other person happy, not what will cause the least conflict. Decide how important, on a scale of 1-10 how important this issue is - the vacation may be a big deal but the color of the new living room rug less so.

And then stand up for what you want, what's important, make your case, and encourage the other to do the same. Listen their side, sidestep the potential power-struggle. Finally, negotiate the compromise - 3 days at the beach, one day camping, and then 2 days in the city. Or separate vacations camping or seeing the city with friends and doing a stay-at-home vacation together.

You can also apply this to your kids - encouraging them to be clear and assertive about what they want from you, rather than being manipulative or afraid of speaking up.

Go for the win-win, but remember winning is only winning when you know what it is you want.