When is Compromise a Sign of Strength?

As children, many of us read in our U.S. history classes about the “great compromiser,” Henry Clay, congressman and secretary of state under John Quincy Adams.  Clay argued effectively for compromise on major issues of the day.  A young Abraham Lincoln admired him as an ideal statesman.


Compromise has become repulsive to many in the current U.S. Congress – a sign of weakness rather than a pragmatic way forward when opposing parties disagree strongly.  This wholesale denigration of a fundamental part of negotiation leaves aspiring statespersons, and people who would follow their lead in professional and personal life, figuratively limping about as if missing one of their legs.  Our persuasion and negotiation options are being limited because a core strategy is being rendered unusable.

To disparage compromise as a sign of moral or intellectual weakness is foolhardy and deceptive.  So often nowadays we read or hear, “We will not compromise” even before discussions begin on national issues.  Such an attitude disguises an inability to engage in the process with any degree of success. 

Compromise is challenging.  It requires us to understand and even appreciate the views of people with whom we staunchly disagree.  This is hard work; it’s much easier to remain entranced by one’s own views.  

But, where would the world be without the advancements enabled by many centuries of compromise in governance, commerce, finance, industry, marriage and other aspects of life?

What to do?  It’s time for myopic leaders to step back and think about what constitutes good compromise -- for all of us to do so.  What characteristics of time, place, opportunity, and amount justify the effort to move away from intransigent positions to some level of agreement? 

Here are five key conditions under which compromise is likely to be a constructive alternative to such dogmatism:

(1) Prioritizing -- When the outcome you (or others you represent) may obtain is significantly better than current conditions.

(2) Anticipating -- When compromise on the obstacle issue would open the door to movement forward on a more important issue.

(3) Relational Focus -- When refusal to compromise is likely to exert long-term or even irreparable harm to the relationships of the parties involved.

(4) Fairness or Balance -- When reciprocity requires at least some compromise for working or personal relationships to endure.

(5)  Breaking habits – In order to interrupt a dysfunctional pattern that the parties have inadvertently, mindlessly or antagonistically adopted.

There are others, but these are important considerations before shutting down the option of compromise.

Amputating a valuable method for dealing with disagreement is as intellectually, psychologically and politically dysfunctional as it is just plain ludicrous.  Standing pat in order to appear strong actually results in the appearance, and often the reality, of weakness.  When the issues are complex and threatening to healthy relationships and a civilized society, the more strategies available the better.  

photo: fotoscool/shutterstock.com

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Originally Poe envisioned a parrot, not a raven

Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."

The Green Parrot by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Culture & Religion

By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.

In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.

As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.

Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.

And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.

"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"

It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…

The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.

* * *

If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.

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