Why Compromise Never Works (and What to Do Instead)

What if everything you thought you knew about compromise was wrong?

We’ve long been told that “good” people to meet in the middle.

Refusal to compromise is widely considered to be the root cause of political polarization, business battles, and divorce wars. birds arguing

But refusal to compromise isn’t actually the cause of these problems. It’s merely a symptom. The real problem, the root problem, is unwillingness to tolerate uncertainty.

Our collective unwillingness to tolerate uncertainty stifles creativity and it dumbs down every institution from business to marriage.

There are two components:

1.  Over-attachment to the literal

2.  Inability to articulate the conceptual

Over-attachment to the literal causes people to dumb down their agenda. It blinds them to creative options.

The inability to articulate the conceptual keeps people from understanding where the other side is coming from. It prevents them from giving voice to a common purpose.

For example, imagine a couple arguing about whether or not they can afford to send their son to a private college.

graduate from behindThe wife says, “We should take out a second mortgage or use our retirement funds.” The husband says, “No way, a state school is fine.”

They’re both stuck on what they believe to be the best plan. They’re arguing over literal options.

Yet here’s what can happen if one person reframes the conversation from the literal to the conceptual. Imagine the husband saying, “What I really want is for our son to get a great education, and for us to enjoy our retirement.”

Now the conversation is about ideals and aspirations. Instead of arguing about specific yes or no options, the couple is more likely to talk about their hopes and dreams, for their son and for themselves. The conversation feels different because it is different.

They’ve begun using different neural pathways in their brains. They’re likely feeling more creative. Letting go of their attachment to their fixed plans, at least momentarily, enables them to explore new options. Articulating their larger more conceptual goals enables them to find a common purpose. They’re more likely to find better options, and they’re more likely to agree upon them.

It’s a two-step process, let go of the literal; reframe around the conceptual. You don’t know where the final solution will come from, and that’s exactly the point.

Traditional compromise shortchanges both sides because it’s based on a lit-

triangleeral straight-line model. You give me this; I’ll give you that. I’m on the right side of the line; you’re on the left. We’ll meet in the middle.

It sounds good in theory. But it doesn’t work because it keeps you stuck in the land of the known. Nothing new is produced, and both sides walk away with less than they desire.

Great solutions aren’t found in the middle ground; they’re discovered when people have the courage to pursue higher ground.

Instead of a straight line, think of it like a triangle. The lower left and lower right cornersrepresent where you are today. The top, the apex, represents where you want to go.

The middle of the triangle, the space between the lines, is fraught with uncertainty. It’s where the messy work of collaboration is done.

Einstein famously said, “We will not solve the problems of today with the level of thinking that created them.

You don’t create greatness by compromising in the middle ground. You create greatness by having the guts to wade through the unknown. The middle ground is safer, but seeking higher ground is worth the effort.