What is Compromise?
Compromise is a basic negotiation process in which both parties give up something that they want in order to get something else they want more. Compromises usually occur in win-lose situations — when there is a fixed pie to be divided up, and whatever one side gets, the other side loses. In compromise situations, neither side gets all of what they really want, but they each make concessions in order to reach an agreement that is acceptable to both.

There are two principal ways to negotiate a compromise. The first is for the parties to go back and forth with offers and concessions until they meet somewhere in the middle. This usually takes place around a single issue, such as the price of an item. For example, Juan and Antonia want to buy a house that is on the market for $200,000. However, they do not want to pay that much, so they make an offer of $160,000. Bob, the seller, does not want to go that low, but does want to sell the house soon, so he offers to sell for $180,000. Juan and Antonia accept the deal and the house is sold. In this case, Juan and Antonia paid $20,000 more than they wanted to and Bob sold for $20,000 less, but the house was exchanged, which was the main goal of both parties.

When there are multiple issues to be negotiated, then parties may make additional concessions. The basic idea is that each party gives up something that the other party values but that they themselves do not care about. For example, Juan and Antonia want to move into the new house in one month, but Bob was planning to stay for three months. Moving in sooner means a lot to Juan and Antonia because they are currently staying in a motel suite that is too small and is costing a lot of money. Leaving the house sooner is not really a problem for Bob, but would force him to work hard to get out faster. For that he wants to be compensated. The agreed price of the house is $180,000, but Juan and Antonia offer $185,000 if they can move in eight weeks earlier. Moving in faster is of value to them but not to Bob. By offering to pay $5,000 more than the agreed price of the home, Juan and Antonia create an incentive for Bob to move out quickly, because doing so is now a valuable proposition for him. This is an example of trading value in a compromise situation.

Some Things Cannot Be Compromised
In the case of Antonia and Juan buying their house, the compromise between them and Bob was limited to money and timing, both of which are interests which could be negotiated. Although $5,000 is a considerable amount of money, these types of interests are relatively superficial and can be balanced through negotiation. However, some things cannot be compromised because they cut to the core of an individual’s or group’s identity or survival. Two things that usually are not compromised are values, and fundamental human needs.

The issue of abortion provides a classic example of non-negotiable values. If a person believes that abortion is murder, he or she will never agree that abortion should remain legal in the United States. Moreover, this person will never be willing to compromise on any issue that eases current legal restrictions on abortion. These hard-line positions stem from a deeply held personal value and will not be compromised.

Human needs are the material and nonmaterial necessities of life: food, shelter, water, a sense of security, identity, belonging, and independence. When it comes to disputes over any of these necessities, people usually will not compromise either. For example, a person or identity group needs to feel they have some control over their future. Thus, people will be highly unlikely to make compromises that diminish their control over their own lives. Native American groups in the United States provide a good example: They have fought for and have been granted sovereignty (legal control) over their own reservations and possess their own laws independent of the U.S. and state governments. They are likely to be very reluctant to relinquish this control, even if the reward for doing so would be substantial. This example also relates to the importance of identity. Many Native Americans have resisted assimilation into mainstream U.S. society. They have valued their tribal identities very highly and have maintained a lifestyle consistent with that identity, even when that has required giving up material gains. This is because control and identity are both fundamental human needs, and are seldom compromised, even when doing so might yield material benefits.

Perceptions of Compromise
Critics of the compromise approach to conflict solution believe that people should not have to make concessions as much as they do when they engage in negotiation. Proponents of integrative or interest-based bargaining argue that if people are open about their real wants and needs, then a win-win solution can often be found that provides what both sides want without compromise. Compromises still tend to be made in interest-based bargaining, but they are usually more creative than simply “splitting the difference.” The example of trading off money for time in the house-buying scenario is one example of compromises of interests that yielded a win-win solution.

Lastly, compromise is perceived differently in different cultures. In the United States, compromising is sometimes seen as bad, as it is seen as losing something or giving in. That is precisely why some American critics believe it is a bad approach. On the other hand, some traditional societies, such as the traditional Hawaiian culture, see compromise as a healthy way to end conflict. In the Hawaiian tradition, compromise focuses on restoring relationships damaged by conflict, which is generally considered more important than how much of a fixed pie each side will get. The primacy of relationships over substance is common in many societies, which may encourage compromise when core values or needs are not at stake.1

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by Brad Spangler
1 Merry, Sally Eagle. “Cultural Aspects of Disputing.” PCR Paper Series: 1987-2. Program on Conflict Resolution. (Manoa: University of Hawaii, 1987) 1-20.

Brad Spangler is an Associate at Resolve in Washington, D.C. His primary area of interest is public policy dispute resolution. Brad Spangler is a contributor to Beyond Intractability which is an online “encyclopedia” compiling easy-to-understand essays on almost 400 topics which explain the dynamics of conflict along with available options for promoting more constructive approaches.