Crucial Skills®

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Is Compromise a Bad Thing When You’re Trying to Create Mutual Purpose?

I hear this question from participants almost every time I facilitate Crucial Conversations. Here are some thoughts:

I often ask participants, “When you are trying to push (interesting choice of words) your purpose? What is your strategy?” The common response, in one form or another, is usually “verbal persuasion.” At that point, I usually pull a Dr. Phil on them and ask them, “How’s that working for you?” The response is often, “Not so good!”

After some gentle questioning and exploring of others’ paths, many participants come to the conclusion that verbal persuasion is usually not a Mutual Purpose process but rather a “Your Purpose” process. I then ask, “So, what do you do when verbal persuasion fails you?” You can see learners put on their thinking caps. The customary response to that question is, “We usually compromise at that point.” And that leads us to the following question: “Is compromise a bad thing when you are trying to create Mutual Purpose?”

In life we make many compromises. We compromise in our homes with loved ones. We compromise at school with fellow students and teachers. We compromise at work with fellow employees, bosses, and other stakeholders. You may even have to compromise with the IRS! (Whoa—too much information!)

Compromising is not a bad thing when you are stuck, but there are better options. Merriam-Webster defines a compromise as “a settlement of differences by arbitration or by consent reached by mutual concessions.” And there’s the rub. A mutual purpose feels good—both parties contributing to the Pool of Shared Meaning and achieving something they care about. A mutual concession doesn’t feel that good—the pool feels like it has sprung a leak. When you compromise, it is sometimes very difficult if not impossible to create a true Mutual Purpose.

An old football coach I once knew hated ties. He had been quoted more than once saying that a 7-7 tie with your neighboring town’s team was like “kissing your sister.” It’s a nice gesture, but not a whole lot of fun. The same thing can be said about compromising to try to get to Mutual Purpose. A compromise or a concession makes most people feel a little disappointed and not overly positive, which hampers the Mutual Purpose process.

So what can you do when you are at cross-purposes? And if you live on planet Earth, you will often be at cross-purposes. Create Mutual Purpose using the following four skills:

Commit to seek Mutual Purpose
Recognize the purpose behind the strategy
Invent a Mutual Purpose
Brainstorm new strategies

With these skills, you don’t give anything up in a compromise. You actually create new ideas that incorporate the important points from everyone’s original thoughts, ideas or decisions. The more I work with these four skills, the more I see how important they are in helping you align your ideas with others to get better results.

One last big idea on creating Mutual Purpose: many people think that inventing and brainstorming are the most important of the skills, but I would argue that committing to seek Mutual Purpose and recognizing the purpose behind the strategy are the most crucial. These skills allow you to build safety with the other person and get to inventing and brainstorming in order to truly create a Mutual Purpose and get you the result you both want.

2 thoughts on “Is Compromise a Bad Thing When You’re Trying to Create Mutual Purpose?”

  1. Jackie Mountford

    Great article Kevin! The question of compromise vs. mutual purpose came up during my recent Crucial Conversations session, so your post is very timely for me. Thanks for sharing and nice to see your contributions to!

  2. Laura DeMotte

    Great article! The question of compromise comes up in many of my Crucial Conversations training sessions. I like to engage the class in a little discussion/debate on the topic and your insight fits perfectly.

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