Does it Pay to Appease? (Part 1 of 2)

When dealing with other people, the reasonable, sensitive, and even self-interested thing to do is compromise, and be prepared to meet the other person halfway.


Well, not really.

All action needs to be purposeful. That includes the action of compromising with another person. And two things must be absolutely true before you take that action. First, both the issue on which you’re compromising, and your relationship with the other person, must be important enough.

Second, the other person must be willing to compromise. These two criteria do not guarantee a successful outcome, but they at least make it possible. Without the presence of these critical factors, the ‘spirit of compromise’ can quickly turn into frustration, and even disaster.

Take, for example, the case of Lizzie. Lizzie’s mother is terminally ill. Because Lizzie isn’t married, and has no children, she’s able and willing to take care of her mother as she prepares to die. She does everything she can, not in the spirit of resentful ‘self sacrifice,’ but because she loves her mother, wants to do so and is able to do so.

As it happens, Lizzie’s mother has a substantial amount of money. Lizzie has one brother, and one sister. Her mother is very appreciative that Lizzie’s time and attention—setting up nurses to come to the house, and so forth—keeps her from having to spend time in a hospital or a nursing home. Because of this gratitude, she has been open with Lizzie about the fact that she plans to will her the family house, a property of considerable financial as well as sentimental value to the family.

The rest of the estate will be divided equally among the three siblings, but the house goes to Lizzie. Do you see it coming? Read on.

Lizzie’s two siblings are furious. Her brother has threatened legal action against Lizzie after their mother’s demise. He makes these threats to Lizzie, but never to his mother. Lizzie’s sister engages in silence, holiday brush-offs, and other passive-aggressive nonsense—her own way of communicating her displeasure. Lizzie calmly and politely tries to tell her siblings that this was Mother’s decision, not hers.

They don’t believe her—or, if they do, they make it clear that it doesn’t matter. Lizzie continuously tries to appease each of them. For example, she offers to talk to Mother about possibly giving each sibling a slightly higher portion of the estate to somewhat compensate for not getting the house. In one of these exchanges, her brother shouts, ‘I am entitled to my share. In fact, I’m entitled to more than a third. It’s outrageous that Mother is leaving you the whole house.’

Lizzie doesn’t know what to do. Some of her friends in the psychotherapy and ‘healing’ fields tell her that love, forgiveness and tolerance will solve everything. Lizzie isn’t so
sure, but because it’s the only advice she’s getting, she tends to walk on eggshells around her siblings. She is very reluctant to leave town, even when her mother’s medical condition stabilizes and doctors tell her death is not imminent, because she’s petrified her mother will die while she’s out of town. ‘Can’t you just return home quickly, if that happens—or even if she takes a turn for the worse?’ one friend asks her. ‘No,’ Lizzie quickly replies (or at least thinks, to herself). ‘If I’m out of town when Mother dies, I’ll never hear the end of it from my brother and sister.’

So let’s examine this situation. Lizzie seems to believe that if she cooperates with, and appeases, her siblings, the situation will somehow work out. At a minimum, she tries to strike a compromise—failing to note that it’s a compromise to which her siblings never did, and never will, agree. The ‘compromise,’ in Lizzie’s mind, is: ‘If I show you consideration, and do things like spend more time with Mother than I normally would, then you can at least meet me halfway and not be quite so resentful and hateful about the fact she’s leaving me the house.’ Yet Lizzie’s siblings will never agree with this, and Lizzie will never get the response from them she wants. Why? Because compromise does not matter to them. Her brother is explicit about his view that not only is he entitled to a greater share of Mother’s estate, but essentially all of it. He views it as a compromise for him to get anything less than all of it. Lizzie’s sister appears to feel much the same way.

Lizzie fails to realize two things. One, she cannot pretend that her siblings agreed to a compromise when no such agreement ever took place. And two, appeasement never works. Appeasement is the attempt to meet someone halfway when they’re not willing to move. Imagine yourself standing on one side of a room, and somebody else on the other. You want the other person to come where you are. The other person wants you to come to him. You then decide: ‘I’ll go halfway across the room. Then he’ll come my way.’ It’s certainly worth a try. But if you go halfway across the room, and he still stays put, then you have discovered something important: He feels entitled to your coming to his side of the room. Because of this feeling of entitlement, he doesn’t budge, and your coming halfway across to his side doesn’t matter one bit.

Concluded in Sunday’s column.