Compromise Isn’t Always the Solution

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.

I don’t mean to imply that entitlement is always wrong. Let’s say you buy a new computer. You get home, carefully read the instructions, and the computer doesn’t work, so you take the computer back to the store. The clerk attempts to start the computer and agrees it does not work. You are fully entitled to either a full refund or a computer that works. If the clerk said to you, ‘Well, how about this? I’ll meet you halfway. We’ll give you the less expensive model.’ Of course you’d be upset, because in this particular case you actually are entitled to the whole thing. In the case of poor Lizzie, since her brother believes he’s entitled to the whole estate, there’s no reasoning with him.

This is why it’s dangerous to meet people halfway, or attempt to appease them when it’s not called for. This is why reasoning with people—including rational, mutually agreed upon compromises—sometimes just doesn’t work. It’s not that reason itself is flawed; it’s just that people are not always open to it. Some people are closed to reason ‘on principle.’ More often, it’s their mood, and, in a better mood, you can reason with them. The bottom line here is that reason, by definition, must be a two-way street. When that two-way street isn’t present, don’t blame yourself. Just accept it and move on. If you’re dealing with someone in a bad mood, then return to the issue when their mood is better. If you’re dealing with someone who habitually rejects reason, and feels entitled to everything at all times, then stop trying to do the impossible. Accept that you can’t have a reasonable, beneficial relationship with someone who doesn’t reason back. It would be like expecting to have a conversation with someone who cannot or will not talk.

Appeasing is not only ineffective; it’s destructive. This is because it’s based on a logical contradiction. If Lizzie believes her brother is right, and that he’s entitled to the whole house and more, then why is she offering to meet him halfway? She should simply hand it over to him. From his point-of-view, she’s a dishonest hypocrite. He has stated, very clearly, that the house should be his—not hers. So when she offers an olive branch that amounts to something much less than the house, what happens? He gets even angrier.

On a broader, more dangerous scale, this is what’s happening with terrorism in the world today. Terrorists are, by definition, the most irrational and evil people imaginable. Islamic terrorists are particularly bad because they ‘rationalize’ their violence with religion. The United States, while certainly capable of tough talk, essentially tries to negotiate with terrorists—no matter how much our government claims otherwise. Iran, the biggest state sponsor of terrorism, is given a place at the bargaining table. The same is true of North Korea, a violent government operating with a different set of motives from the Iranians. By negotiating with these sorts of people, the United States is not only being ineffective; the United States is actually making its enemies even bolder. We say to North Korea, in effect, ‘Stop building those nuclear bombs, now. And, if you do, we’ll supply your country—impoverished by Communism—with all the fuel and power you need for a couple of more years.’ In short: We’ll meet you halfway. North Korea always takes the free fuel and power, of course, but once it runs out, what happens? More threats and bluster. One day, they might actually possess the power to act on the threats and bluster. If so, we’ll only have our own government to blame for operating on the false, contradictory and dangerous premise of appeasement.

Appeasement, like anything based on a contradiction, cannot work. Appeasement can be dangerous and is always dysfunctional. It may not make any sense to fight with an unreasonable person (leaving aside obvious self-defense), but it likewise makes no sense to attempt reason and compromise with an unreasoning person. As the philosopher Aristotle said, ‘A cannot be both A and non-A at the same time.’ Learn from Lizzie’s error. Trying to meet somebody halfway when he insists he’s entitled to the whole thing is futile.

It’s best to simply hold your ground—and move on.