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Bonus Focus - The Flaws of Compromise


 By George Lucas, Ph.D.

 One of the most troubling aspects of following negotiations that play out in the news or on TV is the overwhelming reference to one particular tactic. That tactic is compromise. On HGTV's show "House Hunters” when the husband says he wants three bedrooms in any new home, and the wife says she has to have four, the announcer or the realtor always says, "They will need to compromise on this issue.” So, what, do they end up with a 3.5 bedroom house? Ever seen a house like that?

Let me address the issue of compromise head on. It is a vastly overused and frequently abused negotiation tactic. Compromise is not strategy. It is nothing more than a simple mathematical calculation.

All it takes is a calculator and a second grader to compromise. If I advertise my car, you come out and drive it. I say, "You like it?” You say, "Absolutely George I like it a lot, what are you gonna charge for it?” Put $10,000 on the table and you come back with, "Oh no I couldn't possibly pay more than $8,000 for a car like this.” The field is set for a compromise, and often a misguided one.

Compromise would tell us the magical number is $9.000. You plug the two numbers into a little calculator and divide by two and you get the magical number. Did your mom and dad ever tell you two wrongs don't make a right?

Well if $10,000 is wrong and $8,000 is wrong how in the world is $9,000 suddenly right?

The news media will tell you compromise makes everybody happy. Does it? No!

Let's look at some political hot spots around the world, like North and South Korea. How was the border set? Compromise at the 38th parallel. How has that worked out over the last 60 years? India, Kashmir and Pakistan, when the British left, compromise set the boundaries that have been fought over with three major wars and untold skirmishes since 1947

I'm a Missourian. One of the famous things that people remember about Missouri from grade school is the Missouri compromise, which of course was a major contributing factor to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Let me go on record as clearly and firmly as I can: Compromise does not make people happy. Compromise leaves both sides looking at the other side of "fence” and wanting what they have. Now, to my knowledge North and South Dakota are doing ok. But compromise generally leaves both sides upset.

The best thing compromise has going for it is that it is simple. It is easy, however, unfortunately, like most simple and easy things, it ends up being flawed.

Now there is a time to compromise and let me share that with you. I have three fundamental criteria where I would tell you as your negotiation coach where compromise may be the play.

  • Late in the negotiation process. Very late. Have you ever been in a meeting room and it's like the air now has been breathed four or five times, everybody just kind of gets stagnant? Brain cramp sets in. You've really pushed as far as you can, you've run out of other options, you've tried other more promising approaches like the collaborative process or competitive tactics, and you still do not have a deal.
  • The gap keeping you from agreement is narrow and only involves a single issue. If you're millions of dollars apart or just thousands apart and there is a significant percentage of gaps in positions, that's when you end up wanting what the other side got out of the deal. Always remember, there is no bridge from the north rim of the Grand Canyon to the south rim. Why? They are too far apart for a bridge to work. If your positions are too far apart, compromise will fail in an effort to bridge the gap.
  • The compromise move is clearly tied to an agreement.

So, regarding the car deal mentioned earlier. I started out at $10,000. I worked my way down given the discussion that we've had and I'm at $9,400. You're at $9,200 in terms of your offer. Maybe just maybe let's get this deal done and wrap it up at $9,300!? Always keep this in mind: You compromise and then you shake hands or sign the agreement. You do not compromise and then keep negotiating.

That's how compromise can work for you. And it needs to be over a single issue. If we're still talking about the payment terms and the buyer still wants me to paint the car and she wants a new set of tires that's too many moving parts to use compromise.

Now that you know, watch how often people bring up the idea of compromise, how often the three criteria above are violated and how many times that results in a deal that does not make the parties happy. Do that, and you will make progress on your journey to become a more proficient negotiator!

George Lucas is co-author of the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and New York Times bestseller, "The One Minute Negotiator,” To contact George, email Scott Hutson, at

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