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Manage Conflict: The Art of Compromise

We’ve all been in the middle of an argument that we know we cannot win, understanding that our frustration has overwhelmed all sense of perspective. 

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You’ve all been in the middle of an argument that you know you cannot win, understanding that your frustration overwhelms all sense of perspective. Spent and shattered, you could remember the old saying: “It is better to bend than to break!” And this is just what Dr. John Gottman’s countless research studies show.

Managing Conflict

When you are in the heat of conflict, you are in a state of crisis. In times where you experience a crisis, what you yearn for most of all is to feel safe. If you do not feel safe (emotionally or physically), there is no way for you to reach a state of compromise with your partner.

If your goal is to reach a state of compromise, you must first focus on yourself. Define your core needs in the area of your problems, do not relinquish anything that you feel is absolutely essential, and understand that you must be willing to accept influence.

Dr. John Gottman’s advice, based on more than four decades years of research, is the following:

Remember, you can only be influential if you accept influence. Compromise never feels perfect. Everyone gains something and everyone loses something. The important thing is feeling understood, respected, and honored in your dreams.

If you feel like this is an incredibly tall order, you are not alone. Luckily, the following exercise may be of comfort. Featured in the couples workshop Drs. John and Julie Gottman present, this exercise will help you and your partner to make headway into the perpetually gridlocked problems you face in your relationship.

The Art of Compromise

Step 1: Consider an area of conflict where you and your partner are stuck in perpetual gridlock. Draw two ovals, one within the other. The one on the inside is your Inflexible Area and the one on the outside is your Flexible Area.

Step 2: Think of the inside oval containing the ideas, needs, and values you absolutely cannot compromise on, and the outside oval containing the ideas, needs, and values that you feel more flexible with in this area. Make two lists.

Step 3: Discuss the following questions with your partner that feels most comfortable and natural for the two of you:

  • Can you help me to understand why your “inflexible” needs or values are so important to you? 
  • What are your guiding feelings here?
  • What feelings and goals do we have in common? How might these goals be accomplished?
  • Help me to understand your flexible areas. Let’s see which ones we have in common.
  • How can I help you to meet your core needs?
  • What temporary compromise can we reach on this problem?

Designed as an activity for the two of you, this exercise should not be approached in the midst of conflict. It will be most helpful if undertaken in peacetime. It should take you and your partner approximately thirty minutes. Remember, this activity is not a magical pill. Hopefully, it is the beginning of a series of long, honest, and fruitful discussions.


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Ellie Lisitsa is a former staff writer at The Gottman Institute. She holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology.

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