The Art of Compromise

One of life’s lessons is being painfully reinforced during these days of global uncertainty: You can’t always get what you want. In addition, you may be in close quarters more of the time during these stressful days. Knowing how to compromise with grace and acceptance can help.

Anyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship knows that differences of opinion—whether over something small or more significant—are inevitable. You may sometimes think that it would be better if your partner (or parent, or friend) thought just like you. But it’s our uniqueness (in preferences, thoughts and more) that makes life the most interesting and enriching.

Of course, it doesn’t always make things easier—particularly when both sides “stand their ground.” That’s where compromise comes in. It might seem like a sign of weakness—like you’re waving the white flag of surrender—but the ability to compromise is actually a strength. You gain in the end.

“Compromising involves paying attention to the other person’s feelings and letting them know that they’re important,” says Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, director of life management at Canyon Ranch Lenox. “It reinforces the respect you have for them and the value you place on your connection, which only improves the way you relate to one another and brings you closer together.” Some people also find that they get tremendous gratification from learning to honor the needs and wishes of those they care about.

Not so simple

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge what can’t be denied—compromise can be hard. It often involves putting your pride aside and a mind shift that opens you up to finding a middle ground; that takes awareness and work. If you’re ready to embark on this worthwhile goal, it may help to get to the root of what it’s all about.

Compromising is not about “getting your way,” but coming to a conclusion that serves both parties in some way. Clear and open communication is at the core of that.

Let’s say there’s a decision to be made about what to do for the weekend: You want to see a new play, while your husband wants to spend time with friends visiting from out-of-town. “Speak up and let him know what you had in mind and don’t just ignore your own interests,’” explains Rossman. Likewise, “be receptive and actively listen with compassion to what he wants,” Rossman says.

Once you understand each other’s wishes, the most challenging part reveals itself: How does this get settled? Staying calm in the moment can help keep your mind clear and open to the possibilities. They may not be so clear on the surface, so consider asking yourself questions that can help you see the situation from all angles:
Am I fully understanding why this is important to my partner?
If you’re unclear, ask why his request matters so much.
Will I have another opportunity to have things go the way I’d prefer they do?
It might help to think about how your partner might compromise for you tomorrow, next week or down the line.
Is it necessary for me to be so resolute in my request?
Think about what you’re asking and how important it really is to you.
“It should feel like a collaboration—like you’ve both taken everything into consideration and arrived at an endpoint together,” Rossman says. He calls this the “magic factor” of successfully compromising in a relationship.

That endpoint, though, may not always look like an equal representation of both of your wishes—or look the same from one situation to the next. “In some cases it will be a 50/50 compromise, but in other cases it will be 100 percent versus zero, or something in between,” says Rossman.

In the weekend plans scenario we painted, you might decide to see your spouse’s friends because they’re only in town for a few days, passing up the play altogether; or perhaps the two of you agree to spend a few hours with his friends, rather than a whole day, to be able to make it to the show in time.

Gratitude and recognition

What’s important is that you both feel good about the decision—and that you show appreciation when it favors you. Continuing with our example, the man might say, “I really appreciate your willingness to forgo the show; it means a lot to me. Next time we’ll do what you want to do,” suggests Rossman. “When you open-heartedly express your gratitude, it helps the other person feel good about the situation,” he says.

Some pairs find that the scales are often tipped in one direction when it comes to who compromises and who doesn’t. If you’re the person who agrees to the other’s preference most of the time, ask yourself if you’re OK with the compromises you’re making. “I say that because some people are perfectly content with going along with someone else’s plan,” says Rosssman, “because there are other things in life that are more important to them.”

If you’re doing most of the yielding and it doesn’t sit well with you—perhaps you’re growing increasingly resentful or hurt—speak up. “Advocate for yourself and say, ‘You know, let’s do this differently; it’s not fair. We should have more of a give-and-take,’” says Rossman.

Empathy, flexibility and values

Of course, there are “it’s my way or the highway” types. Those who hate to compromise may not see this trait in themselves—or the damage it might be doing to their relationships. If you have a relationship with someone like this, talking about how it affects you is essential to making positive progress. “They need to be made aware that there’s an imbalance so they can try to be more empathic, take other people’s feelings into consideration and learn to yield a bit more,” Rossman notes.

While being flexible enough to compromise brings many benefits, there are situations in which you should never give in. Any time your personal safety is in question, it’s never right to acquiesce. Similarly, actions that go against your core values are not ones you should compromise on.

Remember, mastering the art of compromise doesn’t require abandoning your point of view. Says Rossman, “It’s about recognizing that you and the other person each have your own valid way of looking at things, and that by acknowledging both sides and taking the time to think about what makes the most sense in that moment and for that relationship, you’ll be able to move forward.”

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