What happens when you compromise during a negotiation? The Latin root of the word “compromise” meant consent to arbitration. The English definition has drifted far from that original meaning. In modern English, it means sacrificing something desired or accepting a disadvantage in order to reach an agreement or gain a benefit.
It is an extremely common tactic in negotiation. Some even view it as synonymous with the process. But while compromise may occur during the process, negotiation is more than a mutual series of sacrifices in return for our gains. With effort, parties can craft a solution that benefits everyone. By choosing to compromise first, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to reach more creative solutions.
Compromising may seem fair because all sides are sacrificing to reach the goal of resolution. But that doesn’t mean it is the best way. In fact, a true knee-jerk decision to compromise differences can cause significant negative reputational, emotional, and practical consequences that affect parties both in the current conflict and in future interactions between them.
I) Compromising as a default strategy may show that the negotiator lacks confidence
Every negotiation requires preparation. The parties must each decide what they want to achieve, and what they are willing to put forth to get it. To do this, they must know as much as possible about the current negotiation and its underlying facts, as well as the best and worst alternatives to a negotiated agreement. (What is the next best deal? What could go wrong?). When we know our needs, interests, alternatives, and the underlying facts, and have done all we can to learn the same information about our negotiating counterparts, we can plan our negotiations.
Are we trying to claim as much value as we can in a single transaction, or create an ongoing relationship with lasting benefits? What are our opening offers and the rationale for them? What concessions can we make and what will we demand in return? What are our possible fallback positions? All of these questions would be answered during thorough preparation for negotiation.
This kind of preparation creates confidence in a party. If challenged, he or she would attack an opponent’s weak spots, present alternative proposals, try new arguments or even use hardball tactics like a take it or leave it to offer. To resort to compromise strongly suggests a lack of confidence, given the number of other options.
II) The use of compromise may give an impression of weakness
At its core, compromising is a disadvantageous means of resolution. By definition, it requires the sacrifice of something of value. It is a strategy of appeasement. Someone in a strong bargaining position has no need for compromise, unless a resolution of the dispute is absolutely necessary, and cannot be reached without compromise.
Someone may actually be in a weak position because they are inexperienced negotiators because they lack resources because they face poor alternatives to a negotiated agreement, or for some other reason. Whatever the case, compromising will telegraph that weakness to others, and may easily prompt more aggressive behavior.
III) Compromise can lead to resentment.
Many people have an image of compromise as a process in which all parties sacrifice equally and receive equal benefits. But this is not true. Each party may sacrifice different things and receive different benefits. It would be odd if they did not. No two parties are likely to have the same degree of desire for the agreement. It is natural that they will value I sacrifices differently and want different benefits in exchange for them. Even the same sacrifice or benefit could have a different impact on each party, depending upon that party’s resources and opportunities.
Resentment occurs when a party to yup the compromise decides that they have given too much and/or received too little for the compromise they made. This might be in absolute terms or in comparison to someone this else. If the agreement is not complete, resentment can lead to a breakdown in negotiations. Even if an agreement has been reached, ongoing resentment can lead to future conflict.
IV) Compromise does not get you what you want.
True compromise does not get you what you want. How could it? You start from where you want to be and begin making sacrifices in exchange for pieces of what you desire. The bed that you can hope for is most of what you wanted. At worst, you receive the bare minimum to keep you from walking away from the deal.
There is one way of improving the outcome of this trap. During preparation for the negotiation, add demands for things you are willing to forego. These will be your sacrifices They must seem important. Otherwise, your sacrifices will count for little, and resentment will grow.
The strategy will not always work. You still will sacrifice some things that are important to you if you must compromise. But at least you will come closer to achieving what you want out of the negotiation.
V) Compromising can lead to frustration.
Professor Calum Coburn of the Harvard Program on Negotiation points out that most compromising ends up at the midpoint between the parties. Perhaps this is because they gravitate to the rule of splitting the difference. Some negotiators are tempted to jump immediately to the midpoint when they have taken a compromising mindset. Unfortunately, this approach invariably leads to trouble.
We must work to get to the midpoint. Bargaining is a ritual with its own rules. Making concessions during bargaining creates pressure on our counterparts to concede in turn. Without reciprocal concessions, sometimes called the “negotiation dance”, this pressure disappears, and the negotiation stops.
Failing to negotiate by sticking to one number leaves your counterpart frustrated, angry that you are being “stubborn” or “unfair,” and doubtful that you are really at your bottom line.” These feelings can cause your opponent to refuse even the best deal.
This can cause problems if you have very little negotiating room. Perhaps you are very limited in the amount of money you can offer to settle a dispute. You should signal this from the outset and do what you can to convince the other participants in the process. When called on to compromise, don’t give all you have at one time. Break it up into several moves and you will seem less stubborn.
VI) Compromising leads to extreme positions.
Coburn also tells us that in a compromising situation, parties who take the most extreme positions end up with better results. This makes sense. If you begin at a point far above your actual goal, you can sacrifice much, and still come out ahead. You can also use your prior sacrifices as pressure to cause your counterparts to make additional concessions.
If you gain a reputation for having a compromising negotiation style, everyone involved in bargaining with you will take extreme positions as a matter of self-defense. This will lead to long, drawn-out negotiation sessions as extreme positions are whittled down to more realistic levels. In some cases, it may cause deals that could be made to fail. Seeing the huge gulf between opening numbers can lead to the conclusion that agreement is impossible.
VII) Compromise rarely and cautiously
If compromising is so bad, why is it so popular? For one thing, it is faster than other forms of resolution. Compromising can be useful when working with someone you trust on a non-critical issue when speed is essential.
It can also be used when you are close to the resolution of a conflict, and just can’t find a way to bridge the gap using principled negotiation techniques that rely on objective standards. Splitting the difference, or something similar will often break the impasse.
That said, compromising should be a last resort, not a first move. It leads to extreme positions and drawn-out sessions. It even can lead to a failed attempt at agreement, as the differences between extremes discourage parties from further effort. Use it sparingly. Remember, you are very unlikely to get what you want, and may end up looking weak and generating frustration and resentment. It is better to spend the time to find win-win solutions. Using compromise, everyone loses.