The give and take of compromise

November 23, 2011 | Viewpoints | Number 23
Melissa Miller |

It was a difficult family matter and it called for our best conflict-resolution skills. In the end, we reached a compromise, a good solution, and the best we could manage given the circumstances. Here’s what happened.

Our sister-in-law died suddenly of a heart attack. She and her family lived several hundred miles away, and we rarely saw them. We weren’t close, but, of course, my husband and I made plans to travel to her funeral. The delicate negotiations involved our son Daniel, who was then 12 years old. His previous experience with funerals had been at my father’s some nine months earlier. What he remembered from that time was overwhelming emotional distress, many tears and much sadness. He had no desire to return to that kind of awkwardness, and strongly resisted our expectation that he would join us for the long drive and funeral, especially because he didn’t know the person who had died.

After many discussions, several things became clear, at least to me. It would not be prudent for us, as parents, to force our son to accompany us; some options are more viable with a two-year-old than one who’s 12. At the same time, it was a teachable moment to guide our son in stretching and strengthening his emotional muscles, and in instruction on how family members care for each other at times of death. Finally, it would be wise to create space for relaxation and play, especially allowing opportunities for our son to unhook from the emotional intensity.

And so we agreed to travel together to attend the funeral, to stay at a hotel with a swimming pool, and to free Daniel to choose breaks as needed. It was a compromise; everybody got something of what they wanted and gave up something as well. While this particular situation may or may not resonate, most likely we have all been in some kind of situation where compromise was a useful way to settle the conflict.

Many conflicts are resolved using the time-honoured strategy of compromise, letting go of some—but not all—of our goals while accommodating some of what the other person wants. In our array of conflict resolution responses, compromise joins with other strategies, like accommodation, avoidance and competition. As we balance meeting our goals with addressing the goals of the other person, each of these strategies can be more or less useful in responding to conflict.

Compromise can break a stalemate and allow the parties a way to move ahead. It is particularly useful when there are time limits to decision-making, and when both parties benefit from cooperating. Compromise is a less effective strategy when people find they can’t live with the consequences of what has been proposed, or when the people in the conflict need to talk and work longer to achieve a more satisfying and enduring solution.

Jesus used compromise when he responded to a tricky question about taxes (Matthew 22:15-22). At the time, tax payment was viewed negatively, a kind of spineless yielding to the oppressive Roman occupiers. Not paying the tax, on the other hand, could get one into trouble with those same occupiers. Jesus brilliantly answered, “Pay to the government what belongs to the government and to God what belongs to God” (paraphrased). Such a response shows us that compromise is a valuable strategy. It also helps us remember what is most important and guides us to act fairly and justly.

Melissa Miller ( lives in Winnipeg, Man., where she works as a pastor and counsellor. Her family ties include that of daughter, sister, wife, mother and friend.

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