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Let´s be honest: finding a compromise that both sides like is not always easy. The parties either cannot agree on anything, or they do but both feel like they gave up too much. Why does compromising so often fail, and how do you make a compromise that both of you will like?



The traps:


  • power-game mindset

Every time we discuss something, I give up my dreams. I am really fed up with being the one who always adjusts. For once, I want us to do it my way. OK, I am ready to talk about compromises, but I am going to fight hard.

If you are both supposed to like the compromise, you both need to be winners. When what you actually want is to win over the other party, the fighting mindset (on one or both sides) will prevent you from listening to each other. You will be tempted to accuse, blame, generalize, or revisit old sins and conflicts. The offended one(s) will consequently try to defend, offend back, or escape. All the attention and energy will go into the fight, instead of into cooperation and seeking a common solution.


  • mid-way solutions that meet nobody’s needs

She wants to spend the holiday camping in Scandinavia, I would much more prefer a Mediterranean beach hotel. So what shall we do, pick a hostel in the middle of Europe?

Trying to be fair, you might be tempted to agree on something that is halfway between the two original wishes. Sometimes, mid-way solutions might work out perfectly well. Other times, they can be tricky, because instead of finding a solution that meets the priority needs and preferences of both, you might end up with an idea that neither of you actually likes.


  • failing in expressing one’s own preference


  • making assumptions about the other side, without cross-checking

My work department is going through some structural changes, and that is an opportunity for me to ask my boss for changes in my agenda, as it has become far too big for one person. Honestly, I think it is twice as much as what one person can do in the official working hours, so I regularly end up working long extra hours and at weekends, still unable to complete it all. But I know that in the current situation it is impossible to reduce my duties by half. So I will try to tell my boss I would like them reduced by some 30%.

Instead of saying clearly what would be an ideal solution for you, you say something that is already a sort of compromise, at least in your view. While you might be doing so with the best intentions (being nice, acting as a team player etc.), you are taking several risks, including:

The other party might never learn what your actual wish or need is, even if you assume they know it.

The compromise idea might be a good compromise between your needs and what you assume the needs of the other party are, but your assumptions might be wrong or inexact. Sometimes it is difficult to determine our own priorities, so why would you assume that you know the needs and priorities of someone else?

The other party is not necessarily aware that you are already compromising, so you might be invited to make a further compromise starting from your suggestion. That can easily make you feel unappreciated and angry .  


  • sticking to words

You keep saying you like green areas, so how come you don’t like it here?! OR: I always thought you liked my mother, so what is the problem if we all live together from now on?

If you keep referring to some words the other party said in a different context, or words that can mean something different to each of you, you are probably not very interested in exploring and understanding their actual needs. This is a word war, not seeking a compromise.


  • ignoring the actual needs behind the desired action

I know that you do not care about celebrating birthdays so much, but for me it is really important. So couldn´t you do it for me and bring me a bunch of flowers and just a small present on my birthday?

The wish as such (e.g. the bunch of flowers and a small present) is probably just a form, an expression, of the actual needs (e.g. your partner´s attention on his or her own initiative, or perhaps even a deeper need, such as commitment). Solutions are satisfying when the needs are fulfilled, rather than just the form. That is why the person from the example above might happen to receive the flowers and a present and still feel as frustrated as before – the wish fulfilled, the needs not.


The tips:

How to avoid the traps and get to a compromise you both like


  • Keep in mind the bigger, common objective.

OK, you might currently want to agree on a holiday destination, or the next team project step, or the colour of the walls and position of your desk in the new office. But above all that, you probably want to have a nice time with your family, bring the project to a successful end, or improve the atmosphere at work. And when it comes to that, there is probably no conflict of interests between the two parties. Keeping that in mind can help you re-tune from the war state into a cooperative mindset.


  • Express your true wishes and encourage the other party to do the same.

Good relationships are not those where all wishes are in common, but those where people can handle that this is not always the case. Build an atmosphere of trust in which it is alright to express different preferences or opinions. Learn to express your wishes, and to honestly listen to the other side expressing theirs. It is not necessary that the wishes are the same or instantly compatible, as long as you have a common bigger objective and are ready to make compromises.


  • Explore and dive deeper.

First of all, try to understand your own needs. 

And then, try to understand the real needs of the other side, too. If one says “I would prefer Scandinavia”, ask “What makes Scandinavia a perfect destination for you?” If one says “I want us to make the project cheaper”, ask “What is cheap enough in your view, and what other criteria than the price are important to you?”. If one says “I want to have relaxing holiday time”, ask “When would it be truly relaxing for you?”. Try to understand the other one´s needs and views, before you start suggesting compromises.

While the wishes of two parties can often exclude each other, the real needs behind the wishes might turn out to be compatible. Understanding those needs can help you find a third idea that can fulfil the needs of both parties – and that is what a compromise is about.


  • Prioritize

Which of your needs, related to the issue, are the most important to you? And which of the less important demands are you ready to give up, for the sake of the compromise?

Take the top priorities of both parties and think of new ideas that can meet both parties´ priorities as much as possible.


  • Think of several ideas and then choose between them

If you agree together that you will first think of several ideas and only later choose between them, you will feel freer to say things out loud, without filtering them too much in advance. Also, choosing the best of several ideas is easier than thinking of the best one directly on its own.


  • Consider also completely new ideas

Options that lie on the track between one wish and the other (the mid-way solutions) are probably just a few of the existing alternatives. Be creative and consider options that are outside that line. Going for a third option that is different from either of the original two can make it easier to find something that both parties like.       

a compromise = "an agreement or settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions“

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