Compromise is always present in relationships. It may pull us down, but it can also be a good reconciliation exercise in the case of differences that cannot be resolved any other way. At times, it can be important, and compromise can work for our benefit. In other instances however, it acts to our disadvantage. Regardless of the outcome, compromise challenges us to think critically and establish the right price in the negotiations we carry with ourselves and those around us.
The art of negotiating
Throughout our entire life, circumstances and social norms train us to be open to collaboration. Since childhood we learn that we are not entitled to everything, and that we must abide by the rules. Childhood is also where we become acquainted with the methods that help us win the case when what we want goes beyond the scope of things that are allowed. We learn to insist, argue, or manipulate, but also to adjust our desires to the given situation. We learn to yield when our parents do not let us go to the park or watch TV unless we finish what is on our plate. In other words, we learn the value of compromise.
A compromise is that negotiation process between two camps who agree to give up certain plans, desires, or ideas in exchange for an agreement which satisfies both parties. The definition of compromise shares an etymology in many languages, From the French word ‘compromettre’, to the Italian ‘compromesso’ or the Chzech ‘kompromis’, all these words have their root in the latin compromissum or compromittere. In English, this word means ‘mutual promise’ (promittere meaning promise). It is the bedrock of social cooperation, through a series of competences that are deeply rooted in human behaviour. The very structure of the brain allows us to take into account the needs of our fellow man, to understand their intentions and emotions, through so-called “mirror neurons”, responsible for empathy.
“Us versus them”
What makes us accept or reject a compromise solution? Studies show that individual and situational factors, as well as oxytocin or serotonin levels in our bodies influence our willingness to reconsider a defining position. The merrier and more in love we are, the better our chances of trying to be in sync with those around us.
On the other hand, the assumption that our dialogue partners will not reconsider their opinion decreases this willingness. Research proves that there is a tight connection between the resistance to compromise and preconceptions regarding another’s openness towards collaboration.
An American experiment conducted in 2018 based on the analysis of the interaction between Democrats and Republicans emphasised the fact that, regardless of one’s political stripe, people who are convinced that the members of the opposing team will discredit their ideas, refuse to get involved in debates and reach a compromise. If we do not believe that mutual concessions will be made by both parties, we are unlikely to even try reach a settlement of differences.
“The way we ascribe certain characteristics to others becomes distorted if we do not relate to them individually and objectively, and instead move the action into an “us versus them” type of context”, says Mina Cikara, the initiator of the experiments conducted at Harvard University.
The secret of successful relationships
If interacting with a person outside our group makes us inflexible and reserved, communicating with someone close to us “tames” our spirit. Family, friendship, and couple relationships are the proper setting to exercise our negotiations skills. Therefore, strong attachments come to represent a real danger for individualism and stubbornness.
Starting from this idea, many claim that the secret to a successful marriage lies in the spouses’ capacity to constantly harmonize their expectations and needs, in order to maintain a desirable balance. The truth lies, however, somewhere in the middle.
On the one hand, the art of negotiating efficiently creates a strong relationship, where conflicts are extinguished by resorting to the virtuous middle ground that is satisfactory to both parties. On the other hand, the sacrifices that place the common interest above the personal one—although they imply a solid commitment—may conceal feelings of dissatisfaction or emotional distancing between partners. Even if they maintain the integrity of the couple, not all compromises bring happiness: in some cases the price paid is way too high compared to one’s own estimate of the exchange.
Making a compromise, and being compromised
The same thing applies to other areas of life: not all compromises bring happiness. We know that the term “compromise” also has a negative connotation, reflected in the action we undertake when we give up personal standards, beliefs, or values out of a need or desire to receive something in exchange. In this way, compromise can imply a level of disrepute that is received by the compromiser as a result of the concessions made.
We often hear lines like: “They compromised for money” or “They compromised their family for their career”, or “They compromised their honour for material benefits”.
These situations capture the idea of someone voluntarily sacrificing an important part of their value system at the expense of questionable advantages. The essence of an unhappy compromise consists exactly of the attack launched at our integrity and authenticity, as well as at the deep interests that define our existence. Its effect is the accumulation of colossal fears and frustrations.
Compromise: The biggest piece of cake
German economist Ludwig Erhard says that compromise is the “art of dividing a cake in such a way that everyone believes he has the biggest piece” thus referring to the idea of an advantage received when we make concessions. In reality a good compromise must be a mutual agreement which has a beneficial outcome for all involved, and does not disadvantage anybody.
How do we tell a healthy and an unhealthy compromise apart? There are a few guiding principles that can help us sift through the options that precede the final decision.
First of all, in any compromise we make we must remain true to our personal values. By ignoring our life principles for the sake of pleasing others, or conforming to certain requirements, we risk losing our moral compass—and even ourselves.
Besides allowing us to be at peace with ourselves, a healthy compromise does not force us to:
- ignore our basic needs;
- put up obstacles in the way of our personal development;
- stray from established objectives;
- endanger the relationships with those around us;
- let ourselves be exploited or exploit others;
- become collateral damage;
- live with permanent dissatisfaction.
In any relationship, compromise is inevitable–between parents and children, husbands and wives, and best friends and colleagues. However, to justify its presence, it must not only be inevitable, but also useful. The settlement of a dispute must put an end to unending discussions, and a lack of harmony. It must encourage empathy and cooperation. It must improve the relations between people without disadvantaging anyone, and without hurting and weighing the soul down with heavy burdens.
Genia Ruscu has a master’s degree in counselling in the field of social work. A version of this article first appeared on ST.Network.