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How to effectively compromise

  • August 30, 2021

Dear Melissa, how do you navigate compromising? I’m working on boundaries, but aren’t sure to effectively compromise. I feel like as a people-pleaser by nature, I’d be saying “okay, fine” way more than the other person. –Natalie (and others) on Instagram

Hi Natalie,

Having boundaries and compromising aren’t at all mutually exclusive. Sometimes, you choose to flex your boundary for the good of another person.  That’s not caving or being a people-pleaser, that’s being a considerate and caring friend or partner who understands that in healthy relationships, you both have to bend from time to time. The trouble comes when you don’t have a good system for figuring out effective compromise, which means the people-pleasers give in more than they should or more than is healthy.

Being a good compromiser first requires a relentless commitment to self-awareness, the confidence to stand up for yourself when it really matters, and a willingness to set your preferences aside when it doesn’t. But how do you know whether or not it really matters? Here’s a system I’ve been using for years to determine whether or not I should compromise:

How much do we each care, on a scale of 1-10?

The 1-10 scale of compromise

Imagine you and your conversation partner are deciding where to go to dinner. Your partner wants a restaurant that serves burger and fries. You’re in the mood for sushi. Now, you both like burgers, and you both like sushi, but your preferences tonight are different. So who’s going to compromise? This is where my scale comes in.

First, sit and think about how much you care about sushi tonight. Do you want it a 3, a 6, or an 8? How attached are you to sushi right now? How much have you been craving it? How long has the idea of sushi been running through your brain? How disappointed would you be if you didn’t eat sushi?

Next, ask your partner how much they care about their burger and fries. Do they want it a 3, a 6, or an 8? How attached are they to their idea of dinner? How bummed would they be if they didn’t get that burger and fries?

If you care a 4 and they care a 7, find a restaurant that serves burgers and fries. If you care a 6 and they care a 3, you’re going out for sushi.

Yeah, it’s that simple.

This can be applied to any number of tasks. You want to laze around together on your last day of vacation. He wants to do one last day of sightseeing with you. He’s a 7—there is still so much to see! You’re a 4—you’re tired, but could definitely rally. Off you go!

You want to stay in tonight. They want to go out for dinner. You need to stay in an 8. They’re feeling antsy, but only like a 5. You both stay in (or they go out without you).

You want to visit your parents for Christmas. She wants to go to Mexico on vacation, just you and the kids. She’s a 7 that you keep it small and tropical this year. You realize you’re a 5—you could take family or leave it (and you can always celebrate early with them). You’re off to Mexico.

Putting it in practice

The ONLY caveat in this discussion is that you can’t be a 10 all the time. Each party has to be thoughtful and honest about how attached they are to their own idea, plan, or event. You can’t over-state your preference, or this doesn’t work. (You’ll be the boy who cried wolf—if everything is always a 10, then nothing is meaningful to you.)

You also can’t change your number based on what they say. Maybe you say them out loud at the same time, or write them down before sharing. But if you’re a 2 and they’re an 8, you can’t all of a sudden care an 8. That’s not how this works.

But if you’re both honest about how you’re feeling, putting a real, solid number behind your preferences, imagine the kind of possibility that opens up.

“I can see how excited you are to spend our last day discovering new things together. I’m in! I’ll nap on the plane.”

“You want to stay in an 8! I had no idea you were that exhausted, babe, I’m so glad you told me. Not only are we staying in, but I’m DoorDashing from your favorite spot right now.”

“It turns out I only care a 5 about seeing our parents at Christmas—so why do we run around like crazy people every year? Let’s talk about setting some boundaries for the holidays.”

And yes, sometimes you’ll tie, and then you’ll have to figure out what to do.

“We’re both a 7 with burgers and sushi! Do you want to get take-out so we can both get what we want?”

“If I get sushi tonight, will you have burgers with me next week?”

“Why don’t you order sushi and I’ll grill myself up a giant burger?”

And if your partner always seems to care more, regardless of what you’re talking about, that can prompt good discussion too.

“Hey babe, the last ten times we’ve had these discussions, you’ve cared a lot more than I have. I know you really like your routines, but even though I’m more laid back, we still need give and take on both ends. I’m starting to feel like my opinions don’t matter, but I know that’s not what you’d say. Why do you think your care values are always higher than mine, and how can we adjust these discussions so I’m not always the one compromising?”

Or maybe…

“It’s starting to feel like you need to ‘win’ these discussions more than you’re interested in actually exploring what each of us wants. What do you think about that observation?”

Assigning a scale system forces you to evaluate why you want what you want, and how bad you actually want it. It keeps you from fighting over something that doesn’t really matter that much to one of you—why argue if you only care a 4? It helps you better understand your partner’s motivations and priorities—maybe they always care about the movie you see, but never care about where you eat before the show, which is valuable intel. And it helps you make compromises that easily go both ways, such that no one feels like they’re being taken advantage of.

If you try it, will you let me know how it goes?