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Alison Bonds Shapiro M.B.A.

Compromise: Is there an Alternative?

What else beside compromise can we try?

I hear a lot in the news these days about compromise. It always sounds so grudging: people giving up things they cherish in tiny installments, holding on for dear life, fighting furiously to let go of as little as possible. What a difficult way to think about life, as a nonstop holding battle. If I do this I have so little energy left to welcome what else life has to bring me.

arrows and question mark

It all starts with the notion that what I perceive to be "true" is both real and complete - as if I had the smallest chance of knowing all there is to know about life. Personally, I can't claim I know all there is to know about anything, even something so simple as how to shop for the groceries I eat. When I go to the store I am usually tired and busy and simply see what I already know to look for. I narrow my vision to what is familiar. I don't bother to register other things - maybe even things I would enjoy more than what I am looking for - if I only noticed them.

Out of this practice of limited seeing I develop "my way". This is "my way" of doing things and it's comfortable and feels safe. I begin to identify so thoroughly with "my way" that "my way" appears to me to be the "truth" - the "right way". My way becomes my habit of mind and I am not going to change it.

A recent study by D. Samuel Schwarzkopf et. al. published in Nature Neuroscience indicates that the size of our visual cortex influences our ability to discern the difference between what is real and what is an illusion. What I perceive and therefore use to construct "my way" is partly determined by the development of my brain structure. And the development of my brain structure is a complicated interaction of my heredity and my environment, a somewhat random occurrence, in fact.

One day, if I am fortunate, I enter a relationship with another person and begin to talk to him or her about doing things together. Lo and behold I discover that this other person has his or her own way and is holding onto it as dearly as I hold onto mine. Pretty soon we realize that what we are up against is "my way" versus "your way". From this is born compromise.

Back to the grocery store. "My way" may be to buy bread only when I am about to run out of it. "Your way" may be to buy bread a loaf in advance, so you always have extra. I think "your way" wastes money and brings the chance of moldy bread. You think "my way" means living on the edge and risks running out of bread when it's needed. So we fight and struggle and grudgingly compromise, arriving at some "middle ground" at which we buy bread when there is half a loaf of bread left in a package and each of us is mad at the other. We determine that we will be pleasant about our "compromise" but each of us remains convinced that "my way" is really the "right way" and we go around muttering under our breath either "too risky" or "too likely to get moldy".

What if we looked at this question in another way? What if, instead of "compromise," we remembered that there is more to life than our selective seeing? What if we opened our eyes, minds and hearts and looked for an entirely novel way to work with what is happening? Rather than either of us spending all our energy defending our position, what if we used our energy to look for a solution that was something we never noticed or thought about before? What if we were willing to acknowledge that there might be something else besides "my way" or "your way"?

If we stop holding so tightly to our positions, we can make a commitment to one another, when we differ, to find "another way" - to think past "my way" and "your way".

We could approach the bread discussion way outside the box . Maybe we decide we will make biscuits instead of buying bread. Maybe we decide to buy a stand-up freezer and get a year's worth of bread in advance. Maybe we decide to experiment with tortillas. Maybe we decide to start a bakery business. Who knows? Our opportunity is to make the commitment to open our hearts and minds to each other - to trust that both of us want what is good, nourishing and reasonable and that each of us has a "way" that is different from the other's "way" - not wrong, not ill-considered, not morally deficient - just different. If we are gentle enough with ourselves and each other and our limitations we can realize that nobody has a corner on the ultimate answers and we can move past compromise into creativity, finding a solution that brings both of us more, not less.

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About the Author

Alison Bonds Shapiro, M.B.A., works with stroke survivors and their families, and is the author of Healing into Possibility: the Transformational Lessons of a Stroke.