The Art of Compromise

“Let no one think that flexibility and a predisposition
to compromise is a sign of weakness or a sell-out.

~ Paul Kagame

One of my favorite examples of compromise is a story told by many conflict resolution experts. It goes like this: Two sisters were arguing over who should take the last orange in the fruit bowl. To be fair and keep the peace the sisters agreed to split the orange in half so each one would have an equal share. On the surface that seemed to be a straightforward and equitable solution. But if the sisters had been frank and clear with each other as to the reasons each one wanted the orange they would have learned that one sister wanted to make fresh-squeezed orange juice but the other needed only the orange peel because she was baking and her recipe called for it. Such a discussion would have resulted in each sister using the entire part of the orange that they needed for their respective purposes.

Although every situation involving compromise can be different — some have short-term effects and others have long-term ramifications — the lesson of the orange is a valuable one because it demonstrates the importance of discussion and discovery before reaching a compromise, rather than jumping to conclusions or rushing to a decision. Imagine the more productive outcomes and improved relationships that would result from such efforts if the fruits (no pun intended) of our labors and decisions were more richly satisfying for all parties.

And speaking of recipes, to cook up a sweet compromise that everyone will savor we need to add to the ingredients of discussion and discovery some healthy measures of flexibility, perspective, empathy and courage, as well as the Three E’s!

Family and Friends

The close personal relationships of family and friends prompt the parties involved to approach conflicts and roadblocks with a particular kind of caution. Not wishing to cause friction, make someone unhappy or disrupt a happy home or friendship, we often second-guess what our loved ones would like rather than speaking with them frankly from the beginning. But as the sisters and the orange scenario taught us, stating clearly our desires does not mean we don’t respect others’ druthers. Rather, only when all parties lay all their cards on the table can all options be explored to reach the optimum results for everyone.

Dean and Jan, for example, are siblings who both have opportunities to attend a popular summer program that involves staying in dorms on various college campuses and taking one or two college-level mini-courses taught by grad students. But the family budget won’t stretch to allow both teens to attend. Dean is older and has fewer opportunities left to attend the program than younger sister, Jan; however, Dean has already attended the program once and this is the first time that Jan is eligible. Both youngsters want to go, but a family discussion uncovered the fact that Dean had not completed the community service hours required for graduation and probably won’t have much time in his upcoming junior year to do so. His parents proposed that he spend the summer fulfilling his community service obligation and attend the college program next summer. That will allow Jan to attend the program this summer and spend next summer on her community service hours. Their parents can then comfortably afford to provide both youngsters with an exceptional educational experience and provide a framework for them to complete their high school volunteer requirements. Dan and Jan agreed, proving that discussion and discovery can find viable paths to compromise.

The Workplace

The workplace can be a bit more complicated. Compromises including negotiating starting salaries and increases, titles, office space, project assignments, vacation schedules, allocation of staff, deal closings, amount of travel, various perquisites, and so on, seem endless.

Jill was promoted to department manager and in turn promoted two junior officers to supervisory positions. All three were entitled to offices but there were only two available. The division head met with Jill to discuss the problem and learned that she had an aversion to being “shut away” in an office, as she put it, and separated from the majority of her staff who worked at desks on a platform, and where Jill had worked until her promotion. Jill’s manager was surprised to hear this, but offered to construct an open-plan cubicle in the middle of the platform that would provide her with managerial status but keep her accessible to her staff, both in perception and reality. Jill was elated, as well as pleased to be able to offer her newly promoted direct reports with offices of their own. Jill likely wouldn’t have made an issue of staying on the platform, and she certainly would not have suggested spending money to accommodate what she believes is her “idiosyncrasy.” But in choosing to chat with Jill about the issue, the division head uncovered her preference and a solution to the office space problem.


Compromise is the bedrock of democracy. In the U.S. this is evident in the three branches of government as well as our elections.

We have seen progress when our elected officials have chosen collaboration and compromise over combativeness and gridlock, the latter of which results in stagnation and government shutdowns. After years of the latter, the last two years saw some encouraging bipartisan legislation passed, all of which involved compromise between the two parties. Such legislation included bills to fund the repair the country’s infrustructure (2015), a K-12 education overhaul (2015); the nation’s healthcare programs (2015), and even a mental health bill (2016).

For voters, compromise is a question many face during election seasons. In Presidential elections, some voters will choose to vote for one of the major-party candidates if his or her primary candidate did not win a major party’s nomination. Such voters will choose the candidate they consider to be the lesser of two evils or the candidate that meets more closely, if not perfectly, their values. Others will vote for a so-called third-party candidate if neither of the major-party candidates meets their expectations, especially if they find one of the third-party hopefuls particularly inspiring – even if they realize that in doing so a major party candidate that least matches their values might win as a result.

The Three E’s

When negotiating a compromise, it’s important to keep your goals in mind, but when appropriate put the wellbeing of your family, relationships, organization and nation ahead of your personal desires and ego. Because compromise is so important to progress and problem-solving, it should not be viewed as a sign of weakness, as Paul Kagame states. To the contrary, in my view compromise is a sign of strength, resolve and keen negotiating skills. But whether working out a compromise with family, friends or coworkers; on the floor of Congress; or when voting in an election it’s worth repeating that it’s essential to incorporate etiquette, ethics and empathy into one’s approach. Showing respect for another’s point of view will engender respect for yours, and will build trust and understanding between negotiating parties. And as we learned from the story of the orange, stating your position clearly and honestly and asking constructive questions to learn what the other party really desires are critical to the art of compromise.

 Until next time,


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