Fight When it’s Time to Fight. Be Gracious When It’s Time to Give In.

Posted on Aug 26, 2010 | 62 comments


There are times to fight.  I must admit it’s part of my DNA to enjoy a good fight (not as much as Jason Calacanis does, mind you ;-) ahem: Facebook. Er: Comscore, Cough: Angel funding payola).

But there are times to give in and compromise.  Don’t confuse the two.  When you give in,
do so graciously.  Take the high road.  Act and feel zen.

Back when I ran my first company I fought a lot.  It seemed the world was always on fire and there was some skirmish to be had.  I fought with landlords (when the real estate market crashed), venture debt providers (who wouldn’t take a hair cut when everybody else had to), the board (over compensation), our competitors (over everything) and any service provider who didn’t live up to our perceived contract (recruiters, accountants, sales lead companies, web hosting companies).  I guess the older & wiser that I get the more I realize that finding common ground is often better than fighting.

The guys who usually were there to talk sense into me were my close colleagues Stuart Lander (COO) and David Lapter (CFO) – both more level-headed than I.  Stuart has some fighter instincts like I do but the ex lawyer in him taught him that a negotiated settlement is always better than a drawn-out fight.

I remember one of the conversation points we always had when we agreed to compromise and one I’m proud to say that I took the lead on – how to give-in graciously.  I had this philosophy that if I’m going to fight I’m going to fight hard and win.  If I’m going to compromise then I wanted to at least come off graciously.  Many people make the mistake of giving in and being nasty.

What I always told Stuart (who handled most of the final negotiations) was, “Ok, we decided to give in.  Let’s agree what our compromise is and let’s be gracious.  Let’s tell them we were wrong to have fought so hard.  Let’s tell them that we’re sorry about how things turned out.  Let’s tell them there’s not hard feelings and we’d like to find a way to rebuild our relationship going forward.”  And we did practice what we preached – it wasn’t just rhetoric.

See my view is that if you give in or compromise and you display “sour grapes” then in the end you don’t get what your really wanted AND you end up feeling miserable about the whole thing.  So you lose twice.  Not to mention that you gave in and the other party still thinks you’re an arsehole and probably talks badly about you in public.  I’d rather choose to be zen and maintain my public reputation.

This also applies to internal company decisions.  Let’s say a senior member of your team demanded a pay raise (cash or equity) and you didn’t like the way they approached you. Sometimes the right thing is to firmly but politely resist the increase.  Sometimes the right thing to do is to give in completely.  And sometimes the right thing to do is to compromise.  That’s not the point of this post. But if you DO decide to either compromise or meet their objectives then DON’T be snide or mean-spirited about it.  If you’re going to give in then lavish praise on them as you meet their request.  There’s nothing worse than consenting to the increase and still having them be pissed off about it.

Developers don’t want to work yet another weekend? Need to decide whether to fight or concede.  Again, don’t concede and be a baby about it making people feel badly for not coming in during a crucial hour.  If you feel you need them there regardless then dig in your heels, but others say “we’re in a crunch time but you guys sure do need a weekend off.  Enjoy.”

And on and on.

I got to thinking about the “lose twice” scenario this afternoon.  I was at a swimming pool (on vacation) at a nice hotel near Laguna Beach, CA.  They have two pools – one adult and one for children.  Unfortunately (for reasons that are unclear to me – even as a parent) they allow kids in both pools.  So we were sitting there in our lounge chairs when they announced they were closing the adult pool for the day because a little kid (I hope) had just pooped in the pool.  Aaargh.  But it was done – so what are you going to do about it? Zen.

The lady next to me would not let up.  She was ranting about why it should still be OK to go in the pool (“in my day kids always pooped in the pool,” “a little poop never hurt anybody,” “how can you complain about poop when everybody wears suntan lotion & chemicals into the pool!”)  I’m not exaggerating when I tell you she was still ranting 30 minutes later.  All I kept thinking was, “you’re losing twice, lady.”  Once because you can’t swim in the adult pool and twice because you’re so worked up about it you’re miserable x10.  I had to leave so I guess I lost twice, too.  Beatch.

It reminds me of when somebody cuts you off in their car on a highway.  Sure, he (and let’s face it – it’s always a “he”) is a jerk.  But you can’t change it.  Aside from being dangerous to chase him and wag your finger at him, you’ve suddenly gotten your heart rate up 20 points.  You lose twice.

There are many times in life where taking the wrong path causes you to lose twice.  Know the difference between fighting (and enjoying it) or giving in, letting go of the angst and choosing to be zen. So in business when it’s time to fight – fight.  When it’s time to concede or compromise – do so graciously.  Don’t lose twice.

  • Campfirewest

    If I was a hotel employee and an angry customer was ranting at me and wanting to swim in poop, I would just let them. That way they wouldn't be yelling at me anymore and I would have the satisfaction of knowing the jerk was swimming in poop. Basically you win twice :)

  • http://twitter.com/kullar pardeep kullar

    I bet you were a really competitive kid

  • http://twitter.com/ahurst Andrew Hurst

    I couldn't agree more. The part about maintaining zen is the most important. When you get flustered and hot you definitely lose. @msuster Hit a nail on the head about the guy cutting you off on the highway. Sure it is annoying but I always think, what if his wife is labor or what if his kid is hurt. This allows the state of “zen” to be on your side. It is all about how you allow yourself to perceive what is put in front of you.

    I am working on a post in regards to how to maintain zen during a negotiation. Even if it over a cup of coffee. I announce on twitter when is ready follow me : http://www.twitter.com/ahurst

  • http://twitter.com/wfjackson3 Willis F Jackson III

    I prefer to fight when it is time to fight, and to imagine fighting when it is time to compromise. But then just be happy it is done and move on.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Except when your boss is pissed off about your breaking health code.

  • Campfirewest

    Hmmm, good point.

  • Ron

    Losing twice will put you in the grace faster!

  • Ron

    Sorry misspelled. Losing twice will put you in the grave faster!

  • http://twitter.com/Net Net Jacobsson

    Mark, I fully agree with this. I always try to ask myself when I feel the urge to fight: Am I doing this for my Ego or for a just cause that is worth the 20x in heart beat (only dude's over 40 would cite heart beat in this context ;). If its just an ego thing (and most of the time it is, isn't it? ) then I let go.

  • philsugar

    I agree mostly, except when you are in a shitty position and somebody pummels you.

    I would say when you are in the super strong position that is also the time to be gracious.

    Then its time to remember as my six year old says: “payback is a bitch” (my wife really loves that phrase, almost as much as one other I've taught him) The worst thing you can have is somebody that derives pleasure from your pain…

    Best video ever about cutting somebody off: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzbURUrgQao

  • http://avc.com fredwilson

    I used to fight a lot

    At flatiron partners I was full of piss and vinegar

    But my partner jerry would talk me off the ledge

    Sometime between 2001 and 2003 I mellowed a bit

    Not a lot

    But enough

    I don't lose twice anymore

    Great post

  • Sham

    This learning is important in your daily life, but, even more so in your entrepreneurial one as we need to be courteous to employees, customers, partners, investors, etc to remain in business. Thanks for a great post, Mark. But, quiet honestly, if there were poop in a swimming pool of a luxury hotel, I'd be ticked a little as well. ;)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    And adult, yes ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    send me an @ message when you publish it

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ha. Yes, I guess I didn't use to thing about my blood pressure rising, but now …

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ha. Pretty funny video – thanks.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Fred. Yeah, I'm still a fighter at heart but learned when to give in. Love the “piss and vinegar” reference. Haven't heard that in ages.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, I was. But whaddaya gonna do about it?

  • Ian Peters-Campbell

    Hey Mark,
    It's nice to see a post (from anyone) focusing on the value of taking a deep breath, coming to terms with reality, and making nice. In my experience treating people well and manning up when you're wrong is pretty valuable.

    The post reminds me of a couple other rules that I try to live by. (and sometimes I even succeed)

    First, stressing out is worthless. It's always better to relax and stay calm. If I stress and things work out then I just managed to make myself miserable for nothing. And if I stress and things turn out poorly then clearly it didn't help.

    Second, other people's bad behavior is never a good excuse for my own. Things have a way of coming around, and a person seems to get out whatever he puts in.

    Those both tend to stand me in pretty good stead, at least when I manage to take a breath and practice what I preach ;)

  • http://hdemott.wordpress.com Harry DeMott

    Very funny story about the pool.

    I was just in Hawaii – and after something like 10 hours driving around the big island, we were finally heading home having seen every volcano, beach, waterfall, garden, smoothie stop etc… and all with 2 kids under 10 in the backseat whose iPods had long ago ran out of juice.

    On an absolutely empty stretch of road I got pulled over for doing 61 mph. The cop said there was a posted 35 mph speed zone at the top of the hill. Clearly just a speed trap – I mean we were in moonscape.

    I lost it – not on the cop (I've made that mistake) but once he pulled away I just ranted and raved. I wished harm on the cop and his family – and his ancestors and all of the people he would ever be friends with. I cursed anybody who could get up in the morning and hand out speeding tickets.

    I had had a wonderful day – and there I was ruining the end of it – all because of a speeding ticket.

    I certainly lost twice here. Lost $197 to the ticket. Lost all the goodness from an otherwise great day out with the family. Lost when I could barely swallow dinner.

    Zen is much better.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Good rules. Thanks, Ian.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ha. That's funny. We've all been there.

    Funny thing with me and tickets though. I got pulled over a year ago speeding on the freeway on a long trip with my family in the car. Luckily we have a mini-van and the kids were watching movies so they didn't notice me getting “busted.” I got an 80 in a 65 but was just accelerating to get passed a slow driver.

    But I didn't even flinch at getting the ticket. I pulled away and told my wife “I deserved that for all of the times I really deserved a ticket for speeding and didn't get one.”

  • http://hdemott.wordpress.com Harry DeMott

    Dude – that is true zen.

    I speed all the time.

    I actually believe the speed limits were set like 40 years ago and never revisited. Try to go 30 mph in a modern vehicle – it is almost impossible. I just have to believe there are better things for the police to do – but that's my own rant.

  • David Bloom

    We don't get to choose facts but we get to choose how we feel about those facts. The closed pool is a fact; feeling zen is a choice. Choosing to be sanguine doesn't make you naive (you can still try to get into the pool) but your ability to think clearly and act rationally will be much better than the ranting nut, and generally, I've found you'll wind up with better long term relationships and results. For my startup I've started (finally) getting in-bound sales calls. Virtually all of them are word of mouth referrals that start with “_____ said you were a good guy and I should call.” When I lose sight of the facts and my cool I very rarely wind up in a good place. Even if the deal terms are what I want, the relationship is not. I would rather have a good relationship in place, then rely on a contract when times get tough.

  • http://www.twitter.com/stephenhau @stephenhau

    This reminds me of a chat with a solicitor (lawyer, for US folk). I would have thought that they'd want what could have been several £££'s of business. Instead, he advised me to work out a compromise rather than engage solicitors. His reasoning: when you sue, you both lose – the only people who win are the solicitors.

  • http://byJess.net Jess Bachman

    My wife and I are quite different in this aspect. she loves a good fight. I pity the fool who makes her coffee wrong. I love a good solution. Something goes wrong, I immediately frame it as 'what is the best outcome at this point?'. Every detrimental situation becomes an opportunity to flex my problem solving skills. Often, the best solution is to fight, though rarely in the moment, and with an over heated strategy.

  • http://lmframework.com/blog/about David Semeria

    You're right Mark, this comes with age and responsibility.

    I once followed a chap on the motorway with my lights on full-beam for nearly an hour because previously he kept flashing at me to get out of the way.

    Nowadays, I still get the urge to do stuff like that, but I resist – mainly for the sake of my kids.

  • nathanschor

    It is an insightful point about the double loss. But, there may be yet a third loss lurking down the time line, beyond the second one. This new one occurs, or more accurately re-occurs, when, for whatever reason – perhaps a similar event, maybe years later, stimulates you to recall the original incident; so re-cycling the negative cycle all over again. Sadly, many of us – regrettably, myself included, fill up an expanding container of these anger grenades, all too ready to explode unexpectedly. I sense one of your points is to stop adding to that jug.

  • http://bwasearch.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    “Losing twice.” Good “take away” from this post.

    Although, some of us have had to learn to fight. A whole other story.

  • http://www.KevinKruse.com Kevin

    Reminds me of a famous quote by Epictetus, “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”

    And someone else once told me, “Don't let people or events rent space in your head.”

  • philsugar

    I got pulled over in a speed trap like that rafting in Utah for doing 55mph. Literally sitting in front of a 55mph sign but he said speed limits decrease to 35 in towns.

    I thought my zen moment was when I crumpled the ticket up and threw it in the bed of the pickup telling the cop I would note it.

    It wasn't so zen when he told me to step out of the truck and I realized the line was somewhere way behind me. At least I had the money to pay it on the spot.

  • Pete

    Great lesson, and certainly analogous to coaching. I am coaching kids, trying to maintain the balance of never giving up with not beating yourself by talking back to a ref, throwing a retaliatory elbow and getting caught, the usual mental aspects that take you out of the game. I'll try the losing twice phrase as we start our season tonight, thanks!

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    Great post…

    Related to the important call to 'focus on winning the war not the battle'. You can loose one and still win the other. Your reputation is the war that you can never afford to loose or damage.

  • http://twitter.com/IBAssociate Entreprenuer TechIB

    I'm a fighter – I enjoy fighting, luckily my father has similar traits and like any good son I've always tried to be the opposite of him. I truly believe taking a Zen approach, but having the ability to bring out the fighter when needed is one of the most important characteristics in an executive.

    I'd rather have a fighter who fights too much than a compromiser who doesn't fight enough.

  • Gretchen

    Thanks Mark for this great post. It is a keeper. Your example about driving couldn't be more true, and I think of this all the time when I am in the car with my daughter. When I start to feel frustrated or angry with someone elses bad behavior, it is easier to keep myself in check when I think I don't want to set the example for my daughter that someone else's poor judgement can completely ruin my day. That is giving them far too much power. Stay zen, keep your power and wish them well.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I'm like your wife, my wife is like you. Yin / Yang.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ha. Yes, the urge never goes away but common sense prevails.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Fighting came with my Jewish DNA ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, awesome example. Much to think about with regards to teaching kids what is right in sports. Going through that with my boys a lot these days.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    re: your last sentence – totally agree. I'm a fighter at heart. It's just that I've had to learn (the hard way) the downside consequences of this. That's mostly what I wanted to point out. Thanks for weighing in.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    My friend is Italian. His little 3-year-old daughter came home one day saying “bastarda!” and when Giovanni asked about it – she said she saw mommy doing it in her car ;-) Doh.

  • http://byJess.net Jess Bachman

    Ok, I think you can file that comment under “Things not to say while having beers.”

  • http://twitter.com/IBAssociate Entreprenuer TechIB

    Franz Kafka may not agree with you…

  • http://twitter.com/AndrewBellay Andrew Bellay

    Great post Mark. Mastering this might be harder than deciding when to fight and when to compromise graciously…

  • http://www.betadvisor.com Jerome Camblain

    Only what question comes to my mind in these situations: “do you want to be right or do you want to win?”. It is a great point in business and outside. It clarifies what you want to achieve and help you see what to do.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/johndmccarthy johnmccarthy

    Funny how one letter can completely change the meaning of a sentence.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/johndmccarthy johnmccarthy

    Always nice to be reminded in the startup world that some things can improve with age.

  • vinhkhoa

    This is an excellent post. Got me thinking about the way I behave in the past, and even in some events happening right now around me. Thanks Mark. I love your blog.

  • http://twitter.com/jlyoung99 Joel Young

    Sage advice, especially when paired with the “wait until you're no longer pissed off before reacting” rule. The best fighters are calm, cool and collected. So are the best compromisers. So are the best [insert noun].

    HOWEVER: Do not forward this post to your wife without first providing context. It is possible to lose more than twice …

  • Encino Man

    Sage advice, especially when partnered with the “don't react until you're no longer pissed off” rule. The best fighters are calm, cool and collected. So are the best compromisers. And the best [insert noun].

    HOWEVER: Do not forward this post to your wife (or significant other) without providing context. It is possible to lose more than twice …