When Compromise Is a Fool's Paradise

11/10/2010 12:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Many of us learned as children about the nineteenth-century American statesman and Secretary of State, Henry Clay, known also as the "great compromiser." A man admired by Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, no doubt he was a skilled statesman and communicator.

Years after initially learning about him I couldn't have told you exactly what he did, but I never forgot that he could compromise to beat the band. And that, teachers told us, was a fine thing.

Indeed Clay did do some impressive negotiating, but he also fought for what he believed was right, even some things with which many of us, and his suffragette granddaughter, would later disagree. Yet the image of the great compromiser teaches us when we're young that endeavoring to meet people halfway or giving up our goals to achieve mutual ones is invariably a positive thing.

I've studied and taught negotiation and persuasion for years, and I can say without equivocation that compromise comes in many forms, both productive and destructive to goals and relationships. There's much to be said for meeting someone in the middle if both leave believing they obtained a reasonable portion of what they sought in the first place. But it's wise to remember that winning, even by compromise, often results in what negotiators term "buyer's remorse" -- a feeling of regret for having bought or argued to obtain something. And then there is the "winner's curse," which happens when an offer is accepted so quickly that the "winner" feels he may have been duped.

All the talk about Democrats and Republicans reaching across the aisle to compromise is really quite meaningless until we know what subjects are involved as well as how much of which valuable items or principles are being sacrificed.

Everyday we compromise by not asking people to extinguish a cigarette, to cover their cough or sneeze, move their shopping cart so we can pass in order to be patient and to avoid confrontation. And much of this is good. Why go out every day looking for a fight? But what if the issue is one about which we are passionate, one that involves life and death, care of children at risk or people elderly and infirm? Would we pat ourselves on the back compromising on such issues if it meant that people would die who otherwise wouldn't if we'd had the courage of our convictions and communication skills to convey it?

All politicians and the president should stop talking about compromise as if it's something ideal in all cases. It isn't. Just as attitudes of "bring it on" and "make my day" are foolish in a host of contexts, so too is going into any negotiation intending to meet halfway.

This is all posturing and nothing more. We don't bring our cars in for repair with the idea of making the shop manager feel better about us. We want a fair price and great service. We don't tell our children to do half of their homework or skip half of the school year because that's what good, compromising parents do. And we don't suggest to our representatives in Congress that should life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness come up in discussion, we'd be okay with giving up the third to keep the first two. That's just ludicrous.

Kathleen Reardon's latest book is Comebacks at Work. She also blogs at comebacksatwork (more on compromise here) and bardscove. She now tweets at comebackskid.

P.S. In light of today's Huffpo headline about Obama caving on tax cuts, a line from my Tuesday blog bears repeating:

"If an otherwise rational person keeps doing something over and over despite seeing that it doesn't work, what does that mean? It usually means they're doing exactly what they want to do, and that their primary goal isn't the stated one."

Of course, we have to see what he actually does. But when a politician "caves" with barely a fight on an issue extremely important to those who supported him, and should this happen repeatedly, this politician is in an URP -- unwanted repetitive episode (see If not, then he is not who he once seemed to be. His primary goals are not the stated ones. It's one thing to lose after a tough fight for what is right, but another to hand in the towel.

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