6 min read
03 Jan

The concept of “compromise” is widely used in conflict management studies and practice. The best working definition of “compromise” that I can come up with is that it is the giving away of something that the involved parties would have preferred to keep. The popular perception (often encouraged by conflict management professionals and various dispute resolvers) is that all that conflict needs is compromise, that we should “meet each other in the middle”, that we need to aim for a “win-win” situation and that “you have to give something to get something”. But this misunderstanding is outdated, very limiting, even harmful to our conflicts and it is high time that we re-assess our views of the role of compromise in our conflicts. 

At the practical end of conflict management this misconception leads to important problems. Because of the limiting, often negative view we have of compromise, conflict resolution tools are often seen as a remedy only suitable to smaller, more insignificant disputes. We do not want to compromise with someone who has killed someone, someone who intends to harm our business interests, someone who makes our daily life difficult. To the regular surprise of people I work with, I fully agree with this reluctance. And there we have the problem with the perception of compromise and its impact on conflict resolution. 

Using the tools of conflict resolution does not make you “a nice person”, a calm and placid Zen master with all the answers, always finding the middle way, the compromise, the path of least resistance. A war is resolving conflict, a divorce is resolving conflict, a fistfight in an alley outside a bar is resolving conflict. The question is not, as popular disinformation so often believes and tries to convince us of, how to avoid conflict but how to use the best conflict management tool given the specific dynamics of the conflict that we are dealing with. 

And this where our misunderstanding and misuse of this concept of “compromise” become so problematical. “Compromise” and the analogies and metaphors that we use in referring to it, sounds so reasonable, so fair, and anything else sounds frankly confrontational and even rude. This inaccurate first step then leads to that well-known push-pull dichotomy where we “know” that compromise is the “right thing to do” when calmly considered, but where compromise also feels so wrong, so unacceptable when “they” are wrong and when we feel strongly about a dispute. This in turn leads us to inevitably choose options that are less effective in resolving that dispute and are more harmful to us in the long run, all because of our misunderstanding of “compromise”. 

With that understanding, let’s have a cold, hard updated look at the role of compromise in resolving our conflicts. A refreshing first step is to remind ourselves of the role of conflict itself. Properly understood and managed, conflict is an energy, a focused opportunity to resolve personal and professional difficulties and obstacles, opportunities to grow insofar as solutions and / or personal relationships are concerned. Conflict properly managed is a necessary part of our lives. Why then do we get the concept of “compromise” so badly wrong? 

There are several good reasons for this. The academic field of conflict resolution, through some of its senior practitioners, have been propagating the “50/50” approach to conflict compromise for decades. Some of us have had this approach drummed into us since childhood, where an argument about an apple leads to the apple being cut into as many pieces as there are disputants at the time. As we have seen, this idea of compromise feels right, reasonable, fair. It gets us out of unpleasant or time consuming disputes, it glosses over difficulties in important relationships, and it creates at least the semblance of peace and harmony. Most of us are also not that confident, comfortable or skilled in resolving conflict, so this compromise again subtly offers a way out of the perceived immediate challenges of the conflict before us. It is also, more often than not, completely inadequate in resolving the causes and triggers of the conflict, it creates (in itself) further resentment and cyclical conflict. The trade-off of peace now comes at too high a cost, and fails to truly heal and transcend the conflict, and in the process we deny ourselves and others the opportunity of true reconciliation and resolution, all in the name of compromise. From results like this we become more disposed towards the other traditional methods of conflict resolution, such as continued arguments (“standing up for myself”), conflict avoidance, violence (eg GBV) and litigation. Litigation in particular is a notoriously hostile perceived solution that in nearly all instances destroy relationships. There is nothing meaningful that a court can award parties which they cannot arrive at themselves.   

In South Africa the harmful effects of compromise bring about additional negative results. Our perceptions of compromise often leave us resentful of perceived forced compromises relating to commercial views, culture, standards of living and so on. It directly bleeds into the observable fact that we are not a reconciled nation, despite our past history. A reconciliation process largely incompletely started and left to look after itself directly contributed to a widely held perception that compromises made were futile. 

Using this outdated view and application of compromise leads to the simple observation of settlements falling apart after a while, whether that is in the business world, marriages or international conflicts. This idea of compromise also often simply perpetuates power and resource imbalances.    

So if this idea of compromise, and the perceived alternatives to it, are harmful and/or ineffective, what is the correct approach then? As a healthy place to start we need to understand what it is that we are trying to do in a particular conflict. This seems easy enough, but we often become confused with our intended result and our motives. In insignificant disputes the old idea of compromise often works out well enough. Split the difference and move on. But we need to recalibrate our own understanding of the more important conflicts in our lives if we are going to come up with a practical and more efficient approach to compromise and conflict resolution. Here we need to remind ourselves that people care deeply about certain things, whether we do or not. Compromise as viewed in the old way often feels morally wrong, cowardly even. Employees tired of unfair treatment around salaries do not want to compromise, a badly abused spouse gets to a point where he or she does not want to compromise. We do not seek compromise with a child molester, with a person that seeks to harm us or where compromise as understood above leads to more resentment than healing. In our conflict negotiation courses we teach students that compromise is often a sign of poor negotiating skills. 

This requires that we break the mould of what we see as compromise and understand that resolution may very well demand some sort of sacrifice or concession from us, but we urgently need to expand this understanding so as to include the concepts of justice, transparency and accountability in our approaches to these conflicts, especially where they do not deal with simple commercial disputes. We need to be brave enough, we need to care enough (about ourselves and those we are in dispute with) to aim for facing and resolving the conflict, not just “manage” it into silence, to be ignored for now and dealt with on another day. 

Our rush to compromise, often motivated by harmful reasons, should be replaced by a different mind-set, an attitude of creative problem solving, where we look at the conflict without blinking, without sugar-coating any of the “sides” involved, where we understand (and show others) that the opposite of the “win-win” cliché is not “win-lose” or “lose-lose”, but that a willingness to accommodate and respectfully understand the other point of view often leads to these creative solutions that effectively resolves conflicts while retaining or even enhancing the relationships involved. We cannot, however, arrive at that opportunity without squarely facing the conflict in all its unpleasant realities and consequences. Compromise is often the quick magic wand that we wave at these conflicts. 

Such a revised approach can lead to conflicts approached with greater confidence, greater integrity and a greater retention of our collective humanity. It changes conflicts and resolution from resentful and sulky trades to events where responsibility and shared outcomes can be truly shared. This approach to conflict resolution takes us to the perceived boundaries and deadlocks of our conflicts and carries us through those without the perceived solution of jaded compromises. This revised set of techniques can assist us directly, measurably and immediately on a personal, professional and even national level. It can create new options for politicians where the traditional approach to compromise is viewed as political suicide. It can create face-saving solutions in personal conflicts where impasse was accepted as the only result. It brings new solutions to instances of injustice, victimization and abuse. There is something within us that mostly responds well to someone that pay us the compliment of being honest with us, even when the news is not that great. It is here where the outdated approach to compromise often does its most harm. Efforts at compromise, unskilfully delivered, can come across as insincere, as manipulative and as deserving of distrust, regardless of our actual intentions.    

As we redraw these boundaries caused by this view of compromise, we should also remind ourselves that compromise at all costs (often for the sake of connection, a fear of being unpopular, professional consequences etc.) often comes at too high a cost, and that we are fully entitled to refuse to pay that price.   

In conclusion, let’s look at a few practical tips that can help with this new approach: 

  • Be realistic about your goals when you start focusing on resolving the particular conflict. This often prevents the disappointment of having to step down from unrealistic initial expectations.
  • Try to see the position from the other side’s perspective. This is not in order to help them, but to help you.
  • Assess your conflict communication style, your process used, and how you handle questions of basic fairness. Research and case studies in conflict show that people will rather get a result that prejudices them than compromise (in the positive sense) if they perceive you as being unreasonable.
  • It is not enough to approach conflict as a problem solving exercise. You must communicate this goal, and involve the counterpart as a partner in the process.
  • Step back from the differences between the parties for a while. Consider their joint goals and interests. This often opens the door to new, creative solutions. An argument about increases in salary, or a way forward to benefit everyone at the factory?
  • Explain new solutions in their contrast and perspective to other options, not as threats.
  • This approach to conflict resolution is not appeasement. Do not condone negative behaviour, poor performance or adverse results in the process. You will set difficult future precedents for yourself. Be very clear on boundaries, exceptions and consequences.
  • In this conflict, discuss and agree on the objectives. You may be surprised at how easy it is to start arguing past each other, which further escalates conflict.


Conflict is often seen as a zero sum clash – what you lose I win. Sometimes this is indeed so, but more often than not a creative and courageous approach to conflict and resolution using this framework bring significantly better results – without you compromising on anything of value.          

  • Further references, courses, coaching and recommended study material are available on request.

   (Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for any further information

Andre Vlok 

January 2022

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