Is compromise a four-letter word?

October 4, 2013
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homographs

Some other English homographs

The other day, a friend and I were chatting over a cup of coffee.  She was telling me about some troubling issues at her work.  Finally, I sighed and said, “I’m so sorry this is happening.”

She looked at me funny and said, “Well it’s not YOUR fault!”

Of course it wasn’t my fault, nor did I feel that it was.  (I’m sure you, too, have had similar exchanges.)

Unfortunately, in English, the phrase “I’m sorry” carries more than one meaning.  Thankfully, in Luganda, this is not the case.  To apologize for something and to take blame for it here in Uganda, we say, “Nsonyiwa.”  To express sympathy or empathy, however, we say, “Ngolabye,” making it very clear to the listener which feeling the speaker seeks to express.

In English, the word compromise has the same tendency to be misunderstood.

So, as I endeavor to give my personal answer to the question posed in the title, allow me to begin with the two VERY different dictionary.com definitions of compromise.  NB, I would argue that it is a homograph (a word of the same written form as another but of different meaning and usually origin):

  1. a settlement of differences by mutual concessions
  2. an endangering, especially of reputation; exposure to danger, suspicion, etc.

In my research into the etymology of the word, I find a lot of support for the first definition in Middle English, Old French and Latin, but no support for the second definition.  (If anyone has further insights here or better information, PLEASE share it in a comment below.)  Still, modern usage and dictionaries definitely support the dual uses of this word, making it one of English’s many confusing homographs.

Whether in a personal relationship, a corporate boardroom, or in Washington DC, I would maintain that a good partner and leader must never seek a compromise as described in the second definition.

But I would also argue that to always refuse to seek an outcome that would be indicative of the first definition makes a person seem like nothing more than a spoiled brat–if not a first class jerk–ultimately leading to an outcome that endangers and weakens, indeed compromises the relationship or reality (which, ironically, brings us full-circle to the second definition).

In adult development theory–within the study of psychology–there is increasing support for the idea that many of us develop more understanding of each other with age, that we are able to more fully grasp and connect with viewpoints that are different than our own, and to cherish values that don’t represent us as, nevertheless, value-able.  Some of this may have to do with neuroscience and brain development, but I believe much of it has to do with experience, and the utilization of that experience for growth and maturity.

Let me be clear, not all people choose to harness experience in this way, but for those who do, the world becomes a less toxic, more peaceful place.  (I have previously mentioned Prof. Bob Kegan’s research and thoughts on this here.)

I would challenge you to really question yourself when you consider your choices in the voting booth, at work and at home.  If you’re supporting someone who says, “I will not allow a compromise,” or if you find yourself using the phrase, stop and ask which definition is driving you.  If the second, great.  If the first, seek learning from the conflict, and an opportunity to grow.

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Nathaniel is CEO of AidChild.org. He holds a Master's Degree in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University where he was a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship, and winner of the 2010 Harvard HDP Marshal Award. He also holds a PhD in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego where he was the Dammeyer Fellow in Global Education Leadership, and a Cordes Fellow at Opportunity Collaboration. Nathaniel is author of "We Are Not Mahogany: Three stories about the male African life." Prior to his move to Uganda in 2000, Nathaniel was Deputy Director of the Office of the Governor of Arizona, and Director of Education at Leadership, Inc.

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