The Danger of Compromise

Photo by TheCulinaryGeek on Flickr

Picture a stand-off between multiple parties.

Perhaps it is between representatives of two nations sitting across a long polished table as they butt heads over a piece of land, or perhaps it is between red-faced members of an organization fighting over a budget item, voices raised, or maybe its kids on a grassy field arguing about which game to play.

In our case, this morning, it was between our 9 yr old son (on sofa, arms crossed, body tight, face scowling) and his dad (on living room rug, visibly slowing down his breathing to be “patient,” feet planted firmly).

As with most such cases, the disagreement is initially played out not at the level of intentions, values or underlying needs (safety, choice, consideration) but at the level of STRATEGIES or actions (my son wants to eat his Top Food Choice for breakfast; we want him to eat Third Food Choice, so I could pack Top Food Choice for his school lunch; we have been out of Second Food Choice for a couple of days now).

It may or may not help you to know that, because our son’s diet is severely limited by health considerations, balancing tastiness, variety and nutrition in his meals can be a challenge in our family. Or that my husband is working hard, right now, to be “patient” and engage in (and model) nonviolent, non-coercive approaches to conflict.

The bottom line is that there is always a story. Both sides have unmet needs and, often, underlying tensions on which the conflict seems to build. And that is exactly the point I want to make today.


As with many stand-offs, large and small, the clock in our home this morning was ticking, and our son seemed deeply entrenched in his position – giving things a simultaneous sense of semi-urgency and semi-hopelessness.

Thus, my husband, with the intention of showing kindness and sowing harmony, offered a compromise. He’d make a quick run to the grocery store for Second Food Choice and our son would (a) eat Second Food Choice and (b) work on getting himself together to where he could speak to us respectfully again.

Waiting for my husband to return from the store I puttered around the kitchen, silent and brooding. My lived experience – and my understanding of conflict through years of studying Non Violent Communication and Restorative Circles (a particular restorative justice practice developed by Dominic Barter in the Brazilian favelas) – told me that this would not be the panacea we hoped for.


Sure enough, after having gotten Second Choice, as agreed upon, my son attacked his sister over a small act, using a sarcastic and angry tone with her that left her confused and pouty. Hearing our son speak rudely to his sister after the trouble he had gone to that morning, my husband now erupted in anger.

Pausing everyone I spoke about what I was seeing.

“Hey guys!” I said, “I am guessing you both believe, right now, that you did a favor for the other. Is that true?

“Well, yes,” my son said as though that was obvious. “I am doing you guys a favor by eating what I did not want to eat.”

“What!!” my husband said. “You are doing ME a favor when I spent some of my shaving time and work prep time to get YOU something you wanted??!! And then I come back and instead of being grateful you are mean to your sister!”

“Yes,” I reminded my husband, who has been on the Restorative and NonViolent journey with me all these years. “I know you were being kind and patient by going to the store – and I feel a lot of tenderness towards you for doing it. But – in terms of addressing the issue, I did not have a lot of hope that it would work.”

“Why not?” my son piped up, his mouth stuffed with Second Choice.

“Well, this is what the theory says – and my lived experience shows. When we jump right to Action, skipping the phases of the process where we find out what each person is feeling and needing (not their wishes, but the needs underlying the conflict) we wind up with two people who feel slightly resentful and disconnected because they are focused on what they each gave up to make things work.”

Thus, while our son was able to let go of the specific strategy he wanted that morning, the “underlying conflict” between us was not appeased or addressed through the compromise.

In a world where minutes seem to be a precious resource and conflict happens so frequently, it may seem counter-intuitive to take the time needed to engage in a restorative process in which dialogue is used to hear the needs of each party and the focus is on creative solutions that  “expand the pie” (as Deepak Malhotra says in his brilliant Negotiating Genius text) rather than nibbling away at it.

Yet, the danger of compromise is that it leaves all parties feeling like their plates are half-empty rather than half full.

The trick, I believe, is to have faith (belief not always based on proof) that a little extra time in the front end (using a restorative process) will wind up saving a ton of time (and pain and disconnection) on the back end – and create solutions that are more sustainable.

But don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself. I don’t want you to feel like you are compromising!

About Elaine Shpungin

Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D. is the founder of Conflict 180: an indivualized approach to whole school turn-around. Her writing has appeared in academic articles,, Tikkun Magazine, and edited books on pop culture themes (e.g., The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, House M.D.). Her weekly Restorative Tips newsletter has more than 700 subscribers and can be found at
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12 Responses to The Danger of Compromise

  1. Bravo, Elaine!

    I love this post because it confirms how in our dominant culture, the virtues of “compromise” are often extolled without regard to the costs of same. Also, when time is of the essence, or is perceived to be…
    “Expanding the pie” is a great metaphor for finding creative solutions that meet everyone’s needs. I will be more aware of looking for opportunities to do this in my everyday life.

    Tina M.

    • Thank you Tina. I love this metaphor too, and do recommend the Negotiation Genius book which gave rise to this phrase. I am happy to be on this journey with folks like yourself who see both the benefits and cost of shortcuts! 🙂

  2. Bill Lewis says:

    Thank you, Elaine. An instructive and restorative lesson rooted in an everyday experience.

    I’m especially enjoying your closing three sentences. As I read them, I’m sensing real connection and desire to contribute to the well-being of others.

    I’m getting that this has helped do that for me. And I’m also filing the “expanding the pie” metaphor as a touchstone for taking the time to hear the underlying needs of each party.


    • Thank you Bill for your lovely words. I am drinking them in.

      I do care very much about contributing to others and feel passionate about sharing restorative practices and restorative ways of “being” as one such way to contribute. It feels really good to be seen this way by you.

      While savoring your response, I also want to make sure I was clear that the metaphor of “expanding the pie” comes from Deepak Malhotra’s book “Negotiation Genius” – which I highly recommend. And yes, I agree that it’s a fantastic reminder to slow down and gather everyone’s needs before proceeding.

      yours warmly,

  3. Ray Taylor says:

    I loved reading the dialogue – could you show us what a restorative dialogue might have looked like?

    • Hi Ray,

      Great question! As you probably know, there are dozens of restorative practices out there and a number of ways of structuring such a dialogue. In some families, they may use a talking stick to take turns hearing each other – or even a sharing circle where everyone speaks without reflection.

      In our family, with “small” conflicts such as the one I described, we’d either use a 10 minute “micro-circle” (I’ll post that article here for ease; right now it’s on my site under “Sibling Conflict” in the Archives) or a 40 minute “Restorative Conversation”, which is another modification of Dominic Barter’s Restorative Circles process ( For those familiar with a “full RC” – it would be the “circle” without an “official” pre-circle, post-circle or presence of conflict-community member (outside of facilitator).

      Is this what you were looking for, Ray?


  4. niklasbringtdieweltinordnung says:

    Hey Elaine, thanks a lot for this very down-to-earth example for the costs of compromise. How did the story continue? I know you made your point, but I’m really curious to know how you guys dealt with the mess 😉

    • Hi Niklas,

      Thanks for the question. It made me smile.

      In this case, it was time to go to school so that particular mess had to be put on hold temporarily.

      Later that night dad and son used Grok cards (cards that have either feelings or human needs on them) to do a feelings/needs “sort” (each person separately). There are many ways to use the cards; in this case, they created “clusters” of feelings around certain unmet needs. For instance, for our son, feelings like “sad”, “disappointed” and “frustrated” wound up clustered around unmet needs for “integrity” and “power in my world” – which he explained as being upset and frustrated by how he was behaving without being able to find a way to stop. He had another cluster of “anxious” “worried” and “scared” around needs for “security”, “predictability” and “safety” which turned out to have nothing to do with the breakfast incident (something that happened on our street that was alive for him).

      This helped us reconnect with each other and each person (dad, child) with himself.

      However, I want to be honest that this week continues to be fraught with conflict for us. In our experience, restorative practices (and Non Violent Communication, which the card sort comes from) do not necessarily REDUCE the amount of conflict – they just help us move toward each other and keep reconnecting as conflict keeps occurring.


      p.s. GROK cards:

  5. I have a growing interest in the process of restorative circles but don’t know of a way I can start to get a handle of them. Could you recommend a website, telecourse, something I can do to start to understand this process?

    Thank you


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