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Back in the mid- to late-nineties I did a lot of work in South America. While in the throes of working through the terms of a business arrangement, my Colombian business partner made a statement that I honestly did not understand then but have grown to appreciate with the passing of time. He spoke confidently and with conviction as he told me that he didn’t believe in compromise. At the time I was taken aback by what I interpreted as an intransigence that could easily kill a deal. For some reason I didn’t challenge his position, but we worked through whatever issues there were. Frankly, after two decades, I have no recollection as to why, or over what particulars, we had reached a seeming impasse, but I do know that by working together we arrived at a solution that represented the best of our respective positions.



Merriam-Webster defines compromise as: “settlement of differences by arbitration or by consent reached by mutual concessions”. Mutual concession implies the giving up of something important to each side for the sake of a middle-ground that represents a dilution, if you will, of opposing positions.

It’s Easter Sunday as I write this. Early this morning, as I sipped my first cup of coffee, I happened to tune in to an interview of Father Richard Rohr by Krista Tippett on NPR’s Peabody Award-winning show, “On Being”. You may know him as the Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico.

Late in the interview, Father Rohr said something that resonated with me and recalled that conversation twenty years ago: “Opposites do not contradict one another. In fact, they complement and deepen one another.”

This is the essence, I believe, of what my business partner meant when he said he didn’t believe in compromise. His was a both-and perspective, as opposed to the either-or mindset from which we more often than not enter into negotiations. It is the conviction that, if we work together to find a common ground, as opposed to a middle ground, we just might arrive at a solution that represents the best of both positions and an outcome that is better, in balance, than if either side prevailed. It is a refreshing departure from the “zero sum game” that says each party has to give something up to reach agreement. It is about each side endeavoring to understand the other’s position and, in the process, developing an understanding of how opposites complement and deepen one another.

Now, I am prepared for push-back from those who will say that my perspective is unrealistic in many, if not most, business situations – that the chances of two opposing parties coming together and reaching a compromise that represents anything other than each side giving up something so that, in the end, neither side is truly happy with the end result, are slim at best. And they may be right. But that reality, if it is true, is no reason not to aspire to something greater, to work to truly understand others’ positions and to endeavor to find a common ground that is better than the sum of its parts.

Stephen Covey, perhaps most famous for his best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, wrote another book in 2011 called The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems. In The 3rd Alternative, he presents the concept of synergy as a powerful alternative to compromise. Synergy is an overused word, and for that reason I generally avoid using it. But in this instance, I believe Covey hit the mark. In his words:

“Synergy is not the same thing as compromise. In a compromise, one plus one equals one and a half at best. Everybody loses something. Synergy is not just resolving a conflict. When we get to synergy, we transcend the conflict. We go beyond it to something new, something that excites everyone with fresh promise and transforms the future. Synergy is better than my or your way. It’s our way.”

It’s as though Steven Covey, my business partner and Father Rohr are all trying to get me to listen … to understand that it’s not just your way or my way … that there’s a powerful alternative if only we are willing to seek it together.

What’s your take on this? I’d love to hear from you.

Mike Cobb