Any parent will recognise the challenge of teaching squabbling children to share. The desire to get your own way is visible early in life, and fraught grown-ups reach for the lexicon of ‘be fair’, ‘be kind’ and ‘take it in turns’, offering alternative treats and perhaps diversionary sweets to end the conflict.
Compromise is perhaps most elusive in the polarised world of online discourse. Have you ever seen someone change their view because of a counterargument in an online exchange? No, me neither. Kindness and fairness aren’t hallmarks of social media spats.
So, what about workplace conflict? Is it child’s play or is it doomed to reflect social media, where opinions hold fast and die hard? In workplace disputes the stakes are high.
This isn’t about taking turns with the toys or trading opposite views on news and politics. It’s about people and businesses. It’s an environment where deeply held ideals and principles often intersect with practical human worries around pay and conditions of employment on the one hand and business objectives on the other. The emotional element can be powerful.
Even now, decades after the miners’ strikes, where compromise was a very dirty word for some people, the personal hurt in some communities and families remains. These are high stakes, and on the face of it, workplace disputes aren’t a promising environment for compromise.
And yet I know and see each week the value of compromise and how it can be achieved in the most unpromising of dispute situations. I see the mutual benefit which all parties gain when they are willing to 'meet halfway'. And I see that compromise takes immense courage in workplace conflicts.
Compromise can be difficult to see in the heat of a dispute and recognising the perspective of others can help parties get under the skin of a problem.
Increasing a pay offer or backing away from industrial action are big steps to take when the impact extends across a workforce and a business. However, they can open up the space for wider thinking, helping to solve the immediate issue and to lay the groundwork for more sustainable long-term solutions.
Common interests are always there if you look hard enough, even when a dispute seems insurmountable. They are the building blocks of compromise, and in my experience, if all parties follow through on their compromise and stick to the agreement then the seeds of trust can be sown.
Those seeds of trust are perhaps evident in the fact that over 90% of the 600-plus collective disputes Acas handled last year were completed successfully; or that a recent YouGov poll found that almost four out of five employers think that parties involved in strike action should seek independent mediation to resolve their dispute.
At Acas, we often find ourselves explaining how our conciliation teams work to bring parties together and reach agreement; something we also excel at communicating to our customers. One thing we emphasise is that when the dust settles at the end of a dispute, the parties still have to work together. It’s not a divorce, and the relationship goes on.
In the heat of a dispute that fact can be easy to lose sight of. It is to the credit of all parties when both heads and hearts engage with common interests and enter a space of compromise. This is where imaginative and enduring solutions are created, and why we should not see compromise as a dirty word.
Kate Nowicki is director of dispute resolution at Acas