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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