Why is It So Hard to Compromise

Published on: 14 Nov 2018
A small girl leads a pug into the street

You probably think you’re a team player. At least, you’ve white-lied that you are in job interviews. But even the most community-minded of us dig our heels in once in a while (because we’re right, darn it!). From our intimate relationships to our political process, why is it so hard to compromise?

From social psychology to neurobiology, researchers have found that social cooperation is a deeply-ingrained aspect of human behavior — so deep, in fact, that it’s wired into the structure of our brains. On top of this, a number of situational and social factors affect how willing we are to compromise, including our own moral compass and the nature of our relationship with the other person.

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Whether we’re talking the boardroom or the bedroom, here’s why finding win-win solutions can be so tough — and how to make healthy compromises while staying true to your core values.

The Science of Cooperation

Compromise, like other kinds of cooperation, is deeply ingrained in what it means to be human, from our evolutionary past and our neurological makeup.

Our brains are structured to be social, equipped with features like mirror neurons that allow us to empathize with people around us. The hormones Oxytocin (yup, the one that helps make sex feel so good) and serotonin are associated with prosocial behavior, reflecting what scientists have called our brains’ “bias for cooperation.” In fact, studies have found that exposing people to Oxytocin can increase humans’ willingness to cooperate — but only when we are in a social situation amenable to compromise, like when we’re with a friend or someone we feel socially connected to.

This bias toward collaboration reaches deep into our evolutionary past. Some evolutionary biologists theorize that human societies developed a deep emphasis on cooperation precisely because human beings aren’t shy about resorting to force. Compromise may have developed as a virtue in human societies precisely because the results of refusing to compromise are so dangerous (say, war), and the benefits so useful (agriculture!).

In our daily lives, social and situational factors make us more or less likely to compromise. Researchers have found that people with strong moral convictions or more extreme positions are less likely to compromise on things directly related to these deeply-held beliefs. This can lead to seemingly nonsensical stubborness, as studies show that people are often more likely to choose inaction over a gain that requires even a little bit of compromise with people they disagree with.

On the other hand, research has found that people with higher emotional intelligence and self-awareness are more likely to compromise. People are also more likely to cooperate with people they perceive to be part of their group, making empathy key to healthy cooperation.

When to Compromise — And When to Stick to Your Guns

There’s one thing the science of compromise can’t teach us: When should we do it? From politics to personal relationships, we tend to celebrate compromise as a virtue. But in what situations is compromise truly win-win, and when is it best to stick to our values?

When it comes to interpersonal relationships, therapists advise being clear with yourself about what things are negotiable, and what needs or values are so core to who you are you’re unwilling to give them up.

In approaching compromise for the sake of an intimate relationship, Dr. Mark D. White, a therapist writing in Psychology Today, recommends asking yourself a simple question: is this relationship serving me, or am I serving this relationship? If you’re making sacrifices to serve a relationship that isn’t serving you, it’s probably time to reevaluate.

And while every relationship requires being flexible and prioritizing someone else’s needs as well as your own, there are certain things that definitely aren’t up for debate: your sexual boundaries, for example, or your personal safety.

How to be a Team Player

After you’ve decided that you’re willing to compromise in a situation, how do you do it without making yourself or the other person feel like you’ve come up short?

Meet in person

You don’t have to be a PhD in psychology to guess that successful cooperation depends on one all-important factor: communication. Research has found that face-to-face conversations are more effective at promoting cooperation than written messages, so if you’re experiencing a conflict or trying to compromise, do what us text-loving Millennials won’t: meet in person.

When you do meet the other person, begin with considering where both of you are coming from. Writing in Psychology Today, therapist and attorney David Bedrick suggests taking a “psychological approach” to compromise. While conventional models encourage both parties in a disagreement to give something up equally in a compromise, a psychological approach considers where each person is coming from and why they’re resistant to compromise in the first place.

Listen intently and understand each party’s needs

Bedrick suggests that when people are unwilling to compromise, they may have important reasons for that unwillingness. It’s healthier to understand and address those reasons rather than force someone into an agreement they don’t feel comfortable making. By striving to meet any unmet needs both parties have, rather than just pushing them to compromise without examining where they’re coming from, we can achieve solutions that are actually better for both people.

Direct, empathic listening can also go a long way. Writing in the Harvard Review of Business, executive coach John Baldoni advises working toward compromise by asking open questions to make the other person feel heard. Asking questions like “Why do you feel that way?” or “Help me understand this issue more clearly” can encourage you to understand the perspective of someone you may at first view as an opponent, making you better able to reach a truly win-win resolution.

Learn to Embrace the Win-Win Scenario

While compromise may mean giving something up, you can make healthy compromises without neglecting your core values and needs. And by communicating clearly and empathetically considering another person’s perspective, you’ll find that by giving something up, compromising gives you something essential in return: stronger, healthier relationships.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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