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Agree to Disagree - The Use of Compromise in Conflict Management

by Dale Eilerman
October 2006 Dale Eilerman
The use of compromise is a common solution to resolving disagreements in negotiation and mediation processes. While it may produce an agreement, compromise does not always resolve problems that contain underlying interpersonal or organizational conflict. This is because compromise is frequently a "settled" resolution to a problem and not typically the optimal solution sought by either party. It may generate a functional or material solution but not resolve emotional or behavioral issues associated with the disagreement. As a result one or both parties in the dispute may continue to harbor ill feelings or other dissatisfaction that can surface again if the parties continue to have contact with each other.

Compromise is described in the Mouton-Blake Managerial Grid as being a win and lose agreement in which both parties get something of what they want but not all of what they want. Most disputes typically start with a competitive or collaborative strategy where the best possible outcome is the goal for both sides. However a number of factors such as time requirements, financial costs, use of power and influence, and practical matters often enter into the equation. The realization that initial desired goals may be unachievable move parties to a negotiation process involving give and take in order to reach a compromised mutual agreement.

Compromise is a strategy commonly associated with purchasing a car or home, settling a divorce, or resolving labor contract disputes. When an agreement is reached and the parties separate, the compromise process can help both parties feel satisfied that they have reached an acceptable solution. However in disputes such as a divorce or labor contract agreement the parties typically resume a functional relationship after the negotiation and the compromise agreement might not produce a truly satisfactory solution to the problems. As a result lingering anger, resentment or dissatisfaction may trigger subsequent conflicts.

Agree to Disagree

Using compromise to settle a conflict or dispute requires the parties involved to be consciously aware that the outcome might be less than they had originally hoped for. The final decision may be one that is acceptable but not optimal. There can be reluctance or resistance to using compromise as an approach to conflict resolution when the result seems like a loss. However if the focus is on what is achieved, rather than on what has been given up, there is a greater likelihood that the parties will leave with feelings of satisfaction and acceptance. Compromise is more successful when the parties have a range of tangible outcomes that are open for consideration such that the final decision is one that remains "within the box" for both parties.

There may be a need to "agree to disagree" on some points when the dispute seems intractable and the reality that they will not be able to totally agree sets in. Agreeing to disagree is required more often when there is disagreement over values or principles rather than facts or methods. When both parties are able to truly listen and attempt to respectfully understand the position of the opposing party they can often come to accept their disagreements. The mutual acceptance of differences increases the likelihood of a productive resolution to the dispute.

Compromise can be an effective method for managing conflict and differences but it is not always the best choice. Resorting to compromise when other conflict modes (avoiding, accommodating, competing or collaboration) may be more appropriate can result in a process or outcome that is not helpful for the situation at hand. It is important that vital issues or significant requirements are not lost in the course of compromise. Sometimes other creative solutions are needed. All differences and disagreements do not need to be negotiated. Effective individuals know when to use compromise and when other approaches to problem solving are needed.

When is Compromise Appropriate?

Using compromise to resolve a disagreement or dispute is appropriate in the following situations:

  • When the general welfare of the organization will benefit from both parties giving in on some of their demands.
  • When differences have been recognized and "aired" and there is a need to move forward.
  • When it is unrealistic to totally satisfy everyone involved in the disagreement.
  • When the goals of both parties have equal importance and merit.
  • When the situation requires a quick resolution, even if temporary.
  • When there are options and the use of bargaining or negotiation will help to reach mutual agreement.
  • When the outcomes are moderately important and do not warrant the extensive use of time and energy that may be needed when using collaboration.
  • As a secondary or back-up approach when competing or collaboration modes are not working.
  • When "splitting the difference" is the fair and best solution to a potential stalemate.
  • When the value of maintaining relationships is more important than the tangible outcomes of the disagreement.
  • When the parties can agree to disagree and live with the decision.

The "Compromising" Conflict Mode and Myers-Briggs Type Preferences

Studies show that individuals who have a preference for using the "compromise" mode in managing conflict on the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode instrument consistently have a "thinking" orientation toward decision making on their Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® profile. These people are more likely to be objective in their assessment of differences and use factual information when weighing their options. Individuals with a thinking preference typically make pragmatic decisions based on deductive reasoning. When attempting to manage a conflict they will be more inclined to accept or suggest a compromise when this seems to be the most viable thing to do.

People with a "feeling" preference on the Myers-Briggs will be less likely to desire compromise as a mode for resolving differences. These individuals are concerned about the impact of decisions on themselves or others and would prefer to collaborate for a win/win outcome when possible. When collaboration is not an option they are more apt to avoid dealing with the problem or may accommodate others in order to reduce stress and keep the environment stable. Agreeing to a compromise will likely feel like a loss if the outcome has a negative impact on them or those they care about.

The other Myers-Briggs dyads (Extrovert-Introvert, Sensing-Intuition, and Judging-Perceiving) do not show any consistent patterns related to the compromise conflict mode. Therefore mediators, coaches and supervisors need only observe the thinking-feeling dyad when integrating Myers-Briggs and Thomas-Kilmann into their work with clients or employees who are engaged in the use of compromise.

Mediating Disputes Involving Compromise

The use of compromise will be most comfortable and acceptable when both parties in a dispute have a thinking approach to decision making based on their Myers-Briggs type. When mediating this type of interaction there may be a tendency for the parties to move quickly from a competing conflict mode to one of compromise. There is value in having both sides weigh the pros and cons of moving to a compromise before this approach is taken. It may be important to help the parties assess the impact that a compromise will have on them or those they represent as they might not give this adequate consideration without such guidance. Is the outcome something they and others can live with or are they just looking for a quick solution to the problem?

When one party has a thinking preference and the other has a feeling orientation toward decision making there is likely to be disagreement about using compromise as a means of resolving the dispute. The person with the thinking preference may attempt to use facts and logic to prove their points implying that the other person is wrong. The "feeler" may be driven by their values and emotional energy causing them to become defensive and "stick to their guns" rather than acquiesce to a compromise. It will be helpful for a mediator to encourage the thinking oriented party to "hear out" the concerns and feelings of the other party to demonstrate a sense of understanding and fairness. After that a presentation of facts and data to suggest a compromise may be more acceptable, particularly if a decision to compromise includes consideration for the impact that the outcome will have on others.

If both parties have a feeling preference on the Myers-Briggs the use of compromise might not be offered by either party as an option. They may be more inclined to invest in collaboration in an effort to meet the needs of both sides. Sometimes this will not be possible and a mediator may need to encourage the parties to consider compromise as an alternative. When both people are "feelers" it will be necessary to ask them to be objective as well as subjective in their assessment of the circumstances and possible outcomes. A compromise decision that meets functional and humanistic requirements will be more likely to be accepted by both parties.

Disputes between an employer and employee, parent and child, teacher and student, or other situation where there is a power differential also have the potential to benefit from compromise. The power difference may incline the stronger party to resolve differences by competing and using their position to achieve the outcome that they desire. The weaker party can put themselves at some risk by choosing to argue or escalate the conflict in an effort to prove their conviction to their stance in the disagreement. A decision to compromise is a good option when the stronger party can concede some merit to the position of the other, or when a compromise may improve the level of cooperation and investment from the weaker party. A willingness to concede on some points of contention in order to work as a team and reach a mutual agreement can have benefits that go beyond the incident at hand.

When mediating a compromise it is important that there be a sense of reciprocity wherein each party gives up something of equal value or importance. A sense of fairness in the give and take process will keep the negotiation open and constructive. Offers that are practical, balanced and move the dispute toward closure will increase the level of cooperation toward a compromise solution.

Conclusion

Compromise is typically not the ideal process for resolving disputes as it requires both sides to give up something in order to reach an agreement. This can result in neither party being truly satisfied which may perpetuate the problem. However compromise can be an effective and appropriate method when other approaches are not workable or when the situation can benefit from this method. The ability for parties to agree to disagree and come to the conclusion that compromise is in the best interest of both will contribute to the success of this approach.

Biography


Dale Eilerman operates Conflict Solutions Ohio, LLC working with individuals and organizations to improve relationships and performance.  He specializes in the dynamics associated with conflict management and provides clinical counseling, coaching, consultation, training, team-building, and conciliation work including mediation.  Dale is a licensed clinical counselor and is the Director of Organizational Learning for a behavioral health organization in Dayton, Ohio.  He is also a part-time instructor at the University of Dayton and Wright State University.    Dale can be contacted at 937.219.4996 or dale@conflictsolutionsohio.com.



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