Imagine you’re with a group of friends trying to decide where to eat dinner. Through the meandering debate, two camps emerge: One wants Alfonso’s, a four-star Italian restaurant. The other wants Lou’s, a diner with tasty if unspectacular burgers and sandwiches. (Full disclosure: I’m a Lou’s guy.) The Alfonso’s camp thinks that if they are going to eat out, they should eat well. The Lou’s camp, meanwhile, wants to eat cheaply; if they are going to eat out, they don’t want to spend too much.
Clearly these camps are looking for different things, yet if all wish to eat together, an agreement must be reached. A compromise. Finally, someone suggests The Noodle Haus, an above-average Thai place that costs more than Lou’s but not as much as Alfonso’s. Your friends agree: it’s a choice they can live with, and that’s where they eat.
While on the surface, this seems like a good compromise, it doesn’t really give anybody what they want. Half the friends spend more money than they wish to, while the other half eats a meal that is not as good as they want it to be.
In middle school history, I was taught that this was the essence of compromise: Each side gives something up so they can come to an agreement and make a decision. According to my middle school teachers, compromise was not only the best way to resolve disagreements; it was also the lifeblood of American democracy.
But compromise is not the only way. In college, I took a great course called “The Psychology of Negotiation,” where for part of the quarter, we discussed how and why compromises were suboptimal. The essential reason is this: By seeking compromise, both sides are conceding that they cannot get what they want.
That said, if I’m interpreting my notes and memory correctly, compromise can be the best lens through which to negotiate if the parties have the same priorities and opposing viewpoints. Take the dinner example. If the motivation of the Alfonso’s group was to spend a lot of money, and the motivation of the Lou’s group was to spend a little money, to make a decision, they would have to compromise, and “meet in the middle” of one variable, cost.
However, when the groups have different motivations and priorities, more often than not, their motivations are not diametrically opposed. The Alfonso’s friends want to eat well, and the Lou’s friends want to eat cheaply. Why not look for a place to eat that offers both? In Chicago, at least, there are plenty of options. Alternatively, the Alfonso’s friends could offer to pay for part of the Lou’s friends’ meals. After all, the Lou’s friends aren’t against eating Alfonso’s food, they just don’t want to spend the money. So they could say, alright, we’ll put in $12 each at Alfonso’s, if you all can split the rest of what our meals cost. The Lou’s friends pay what they want, and the Alfonso’s friends eat what they want, and everyone ends up full and happy.
Social niceties aside, it’s easy to see how this solution trumps the Noodle Haus compromise. One gives both sides exactly what they want, the other leaves them merely content. But once my class alerted me to alternatives, I started seeing Noodle Haus compromises everywhere: among friends making social decisions, among co-workers dividing tasks, among politicians arguing the issues of the day.
One of the key lessons I took away from “The Psychology of Negotiation” was this: Of course it’s foolish for actors in a disagreement or a negotiation to expect to always get exactly what they want. But if they focus on where each party’s priorities and motivations lie, a more optimal solution is possible for all sides. Sometimes, when they step back and think creatively about the deal they want to strike, it’s possible to turn a choice of “either/or” into an outcome of “both and.” And sometimes, it’s best to refuse compromise.