Finding a compromise is a key ingredient for successful peace negotiations. But why is it so difficult to make concessions? By Martin Griffiths.

Learning to live together is about the hardest thing any of us are asked to do. Staying the course in a relationship requires hard work and carefully judged adaptation. We learn to live together and to forgo certain pleasures and principles for the sake of our shared pleasures. Peace-making is not that different, it’s about the need for compromise and concession. A mediator would identify the needs of the various parties, distinguish the needs from what they really and move towards compromise. This however only works if we manage to find the generosity and vision that allows each of the parties to give way to the other.

Changes? Yes! Concessions? No!

I was recently talking to some contacts in the world of Syria's Islamist armed groups. They were telling me that full-time allegiance to some of the traditional goals of Islamist jihad no longer proved to be an asset, neither in their management of the armed campaigns they wage, nor in their efforts to keep the allegiance of 'ordinary Syrians’ in the zones of territory they control. But, they stressed, they were not going to make any concessions (presumably towards people like me from the west, as well as the Syrians they commanded).

It was a similar story when it came to military strategy. We talked about changes that they were making in alliances on the battlefield. These new (and, by the way, militarily very effective) alliances were bringing together some very odd bedfellows: defectors from Assad's military fighting alongside jihadists who had spent time jailed quite possibly by these same people‎. They are coming together for a fine reason: to take the fight to Assad at last. But in describing these moves, my friends insisted that these should not be seen as 'concessions'. No, these were principled and logical decisions. 

What’s wrong with “concessions”?

I understood their point but I wanted to tell them that conceding a point is an honourable thing to do - not a weak one. Peace often depends on just that kind of honour. However, being reminded of the importance of ‘concessions’, I started wondering why we are so bad at teaching our budding mediators, politicians and leaders how to concede - and how to develop sustainable compromises?

It is a phenomenon deeply engrained in our societies. At school our children learn to debate issues. How are they taught these skills? They are taught to 'win' debates, to 'defeat' the opposing team. It is about competition. Are we really surprised that no positive values are attributed to ‘reaching a compromise’ or ‘granting concessions’? Nowhere is this failure to honour the quality of concessions more sadly missed than in our approach to liberal values. We are taught that many of our values are in fact universal values. However, this desire for a certain uniformity can be counterproductive for our search for peace: It often reduces our ability to grant concessions.