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The wisdom of compromise

by HARVEY MACKAY
| February 18, 2024 1:00 AM

Abraham Lincoln was a man who believed in compromise. According to an old story, when he was practicing law in Illinois, a farmer asked for Lincoln's help in getting a divorce from his wife.

Lincoln asked, "What seems to be the trouble?"

"It's our house," said the farmer angrily. "I want to paint it brown, and she wants to paint it white. We got into a big argument about it."

After calming the man down, Lincoln suggested that he go back to his wife and try to work out a compromise. The farmer was very doubtful that any such solution was possible, but he agreed to try. Lincoln told him to come back in four weeks.

After four weeks, the farmer returned to Lincoln's office saying, "There is no need to start proceedings against my wife. We've made up — compromise is how we did it."

A pleased Lincoln asked, "How did you manage it?"

"Well," said the farmer, "we decided to paint the house white."

Maybe this is why Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson said, "Compromise is the best and cheapest lawyer."

I have a similar story about my marriage to Carol Ann. I was recently asked how we have managed to stay together for 64 years. I replied that when we got married, we agreed that Carol Ann would make all the minor decisions, and I would make the major decisions. Luckily, there have never been any major decisions.

All kidding aside, compromise is absolutely vital in both our personal and professional lives. It is the lubricant that keeps the gears of relationships and business dealings moving smoothly. Without it, we would constantly be at an impasse, unable to move forward.

Henry Boyle, an Irish politician said, "The most important trip you may take in life is meeting people halfway."

Understanding what you want and why you want it is crucial to successful compromise. It is about knowing your non-negotiables and being clear about what you are willing to give up. This clarity allows for more effective negotiations and outcomes that are acceptable to all parties involved.

Compromise is essential in business. Compromise is a daily reality in business. Whether negotiating contracts, hiring staff or closing sales, the ability to find a middle ground is key to success.

Compromise prevents stalemates. Without compromise, we risk losing everything we have in pursuit of what we may never get. The "my way or the highway" approach most often results in a crowded road full of angry drivers.

Compromise facilitates progress. President Harry Truman's willingness to accept things, one slice at a time, demonstrates that compromise can lead to incremental progress, which is often better than no progress at all.

Compromise maintains integrity. It is also important to recognize when not to compromise, such as on principles, ethics or legal matters. Compromise should never come at the cost of honesty or integrity.

Indian spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi said: "All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender. For it is all give and no take."

I have found that the most successful compromises I have reached have resulted from face-to-face meetings, where both sides can read the situation clearly. Depending on the importance of the negotiation, it might be best to choose a neutral location rather than one's office. Perhaps a restaurant or even a golf game, where the atmosphere can be more casual.

Go into the meeting understanding that no one is going to get everything they want. As long as you know what you absolutely need, you can decide what you will be willing to give up. And be prepared to come to a different outcome than you had originally considered.

Each side needs to respectfully listen to the other's concerns and requests. No interruptions, no protests, no questions until it's your turn.

Stay on topic and resist the temptation to bring in other demands that will only confuse the conversation. Review what you heard and put agreements in writing with deadlines or responsibilities as appropriate.

Finally, shake hands or otherwise leave your meeting (or meetings) on a positive note. Chances are you will be doing business with them, or running in the same circles as them or even merging your companies at some point. Spit out the sour grapes and instead look forward to the fruits of your labor.

Mackay's Moral: Compromise is an attitude, not a pastime.

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Harvey Mackay is the author of the New York Times bestseller "Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive." He can be reached through his website, www.harveymackay.com, by emailing harvey@mackay.com or by writing him at MackayMitchell Envelope Co., 2100 Elm St. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414.