I’ve been thinking about compromise this week. Compromise is one of those odd things that we value without always thinking about whether it’s best. I think many of us find compromise difficult. In so many situations it really is the only way to achieve anything at all. If I hadn’t learned to compromise, I certainly wouldn’t have the wonderful people and things I have in mu life right now.
I still find that there are some times when I feel pressured to compromise, where a more realistic look at the situation suggests that a compromise is actually not the right decision. There are some things that I will never compromise on. These are my most dearly held values. I won’t compromise on my family’s safety. I won’t compromise when I consider something to be a question of my integrity. I won’t compromise if I believe that it will harm others.
There are other times when I actually think it might be worth considering whether a compromise actually serves anyone. There are many situations where a compromise means that both parties are unhappy. If my wife wants a new car and I want to save money, buying her a scooter might seem like a compromise. It’s a lot cheaper than a car but she’s still getting a new vehicle, right? Well no. She wouldn’t be amused at not being able to travel on the motorways and I’d still be annoyed at having spent money that didn’t need to be spent. In this example, it might actually be better for one of us to step back and acknowledge that our desires might be different, but we were willing to let the other person have their own way completely.
This might seem antithetical to those who believe that everything has to be ‘fair’, but it’s absolutely the best choice for my family in that situation. We discuss it, we talk about how much we each want our preference, see whether there’s a compromise that fulfils both of our needs and, if there isn’t, the person who is less invested in the outcome will usually step back.
The key to working out whether to compromise or not is right there. We talk about our needs. We don’t just say “I want to save money”. We say “I know that we have a lot of expenses coming in over the next few months and I would feel more secure if we built up a little bit more of a buffer before spending large sums of money”. We don’t say “I want a new car”. We say “Driving long distances in our current car worries me because it has broken down twice. I have a lot of long distance driving coming up so I’d like something I trusted more”. We work together.
This approach to compromise works in so many different contexts. One unusual one that I have recently been discussing, and I would like to highlight, is the way in which we mentally compromise when told conflicting stories. When we’re given two accounts of an event, there is a tendency to try to find a compromise position. We assume that the truth must lie somewhere close to the mid point between the two. When you think a little more carefully, however, this rewards those who lie the most. If one person is telling the truth, the more extreme the other person’s lie is, the further our beliefs get from the truth.
Once we shake off the instinctive “the mid point is probably fair” reaction, whether to the truth or to compromise, we find that we have far more options. It does take a little more work. Finding the midpoint between two positions is easy. Understanding the needs you are trying to fulfil at any particular time is hard. It takes self-awareness and honesty, but it allows you to see quickly whether a compromise is the best goal in that situation. It’s the only way to find a compromise that leaves both parties feeling that they got what they needed. Making sure that everyone gets their needs met as far as possible is far more important than some arbitrary notion of what’s fair. As a friend of mine responds whenever someone tells her she’s not being fair:
“Fair is where you get candyfloss”
I don’t want candyfloss. I want to get the right outcome for me and the people around me.