Have you ever met those charming 80-something couples that have been happily married for 50+ years? The ones that when asked about their compatibility, briskly laugh it off, “Us, compatible? We can’t even agree on how to cook our eggs!”. Which makes us wonder, how on earth do some people stay together for so long, being seeming opposites?

I don’t believe in instant compatibility, just like I don’t believe in instant coffee, instant relationships, and instant life hacks. I’ve learned to appreciate the value of slowness in understanding people. But a few months away from thirty, my perception of time has also changed: I no longer wish to waste years figuring out things that may be clear a lot sooner.

So recently, I got thinking about core compatibility and saw that despite my previous failures, core compatibility isn’t that hard to “get” as long as we employ one critical strategy as a yardstick.

Surprisingly, this is the compatibility yardstick shared by Google executives and happily married 80-something couples.

What we think compatibility is

Our usual yardstick for compatibility is a detailed list of “sweet spots”.

When we get to know someone, there’s nothing more exciting than matching the patterns of our characters, emotions, and habits like a child matches and applies different pieces to form a single patchwork

But in this process, there’s a paradox between the questions we ask and the results we seek.

In great part, our usual yardstick for compatibility is a detailed list of “sweet spots”: things like Starbucks coffee flavors, Netflix tastes, and if you’re into something special or nerdy, fill this in with your Achilles’ heel (mine is philosophy and classical music, so the guy would once tip my scale for knowing his Nietzsche and Brahms).

Our minds scan the above information on auto mode, and if you like the person, feel good around them, and they top your sweet spot compatibility list, the chimes go off. We feel like we’ve found someone who complements us perfectly. Until life catches up and (seemingly) ruins everything.

Life usually catches up in the form of a tricky situation; or grief; or a pivoting life choice for one of you. Whatever it is, you then turn to your partner and ask them for advice. Since you’re so much alike, you wait for their words to confirm, or strengthen, or guide yours. You wait for your heart to back their advice, and for their advice to back your heart. Standing at this vital crossroads of your life, you look at them… And see them pointing in a totally different direction.

What compatibility really is

What we should really be asking a person in the very first stages of getting to know them are problem-solving questions.

When we come to a job interview, we’re asked a few questions about our background, previous experience, our hobbies. But these act only as warmup questions or icebreakers to the decisive questions. And those are the problem-solving questions.

The company employing us can’t afford to lose time. It wants to understand right from the beginning, how good of a problem-solver we are, and whether our problem-solving style aligns with the company’s/team’s problem-solving style. No manager wants to be stuck with an employee that doesn’t know how to handle stress or becomes inadequate, manipulative, demanding, etc. when solving a problem.

We could draw the same parallel with relationships. The goal of any “interview” and “probationary period” (initial weeks of getting to know each other) is to understand some key aspects of compatibility and avoid conflict later on. But if a company, ever since the interview, focuses on understanding our problem-solving skills as the key component to determine business compatibility, we tend to mistake the secondary categories as the key components of relationship compatibility.

The problem with how we measure compatibility is that we rarely think of it in terms of problem-solving skills, but usually in terms of secondary categories like mutual hobbies, background, and attraction. Yet true compatibility demonstrates people being on the same page in times of challenge and stress. In other words, being harmonious problem solvers.

The core compatibility question

What we should really be asking a person in the very first stages of getting to know them, while we’re still not deeply invested and emotionally bound, are problem-solving questions. Please understand me right, I’m not talking about offering algebra equations or riddles to your next date.

By a problem-solving question, I mean a question that shows how the person acts in the face of life’s challenges and stresses, and how that would compare to your own actions.

The problem-solving question(s) you choose to ask must be unique to your values. Here are some questions you can first ask yourself to formulate your core compatibility question:

  • What actions/situations would I never tolerate? (Describe a situation like that and ask for their advice, without stating your position.)
  • What are my core values? (From your religious beliefs to your parenting ideals, think of your deepest standards and pose that as a dilemma in your question.)
  • What attitudes/behaviors won’t I tolerate in a man/woman? (Watch for how they react to the question— do they get annoyed, persistent, pushy, angry?)

Take a page out of top businesses’ books: dig deep and don’t be afraid to sound weird. For example, here’s a question Google sometimes asks on their interview, “If you wanted to bring your dog to work but one of your team members was allergic to dogs, what would you do?” Have you ever seen a dog in a Google office? I sure haven’t. But the question isn’t absurd. It is demonstrative of how assertive the person is, how good at compromise they are, and how they work around situations that aren’t really stressful but can be disorienting. Even the angle they choose to argue will tell you about their deeper personality. (Arguing the question (“I’d never bring a dog into an office” vs. arguing the given problem.)

Don’t worry, you don’t have to ask questions about a dog (though the way we treat animals is a huge indicator of how we treat people). You don’t even have to make it about you (it can be a situation with “your friend, sibling, parent”, or an imaginary problem). But whatever you ask, bring it to this point:

“I (my friend/relative/coworker) have to choose between A and B (insert the conflicting problem or situation that is vital for your core values) and really need your advice. How would you advise me (them) to act?”

Lead them on to give specific advice, not just a general comment. When they do, listen to how it matches against what you would do, given the same situation. Is your heart aligned with their advice? Would you apply it right away, hesitate, or never apply it? Does their choice point in the opposite direction from where your values point, and that happens with the things you hold sacred or highly important?

People love being asked for advice and especially to advise those they like. But in talking about this, they will open themselves more than they will teach you. Since they don’t have to talk about themselves, and how they would act, they are more relaxed and have less reason to play up their image. Yet what people advise others is mostly what they would do themselves, so it’s a better mirror than asking, “what would you do?” upfront.

If something feels off, you don’t have to throw the person off your radar, but be cautious and learn more about their core values before moving on with a deeper relationship. Remember, this question is isn’t meant for ditching someone. It’s meant to throw light on their deeper personality, and shift the focus away from superficial compatibility to core compatibility.

On a personal note, any time I applied this strategy — and I have come to see and learn it 100% through my own experience — I noticed a funny thing: with the people who eventually turned out to be wrong for me, all their problem-solving advice, from insignificant to important, proved unactionable for my life as I saw it, vs. my life as they saw it. I would nod and listen, but I’d never act on it. It just wasn’t me.

I also learned that there would be very few people, including partners and friends, who would back and support your actions. These people may not be your partners. But whoever they are, appreciate them. They are not many.

Final thoughts

I’m pretty convinced that life is about problem-solving. That’s why for me, genuine compatibility means having a person next to me who is looking in the same direction, supporting me in my core values.

Whether it’s a necessity to start life from scratch with a smile, a beloved cat/dog you’d never leave behind when moving, or a career dream you’d like to take on, we’ve got to be sure that the person next to us won’t betray us when life throws a challenge — or just an inconvenience at our feet.

You don’t have to pay attention to the problem-solving question and its reflection on compatibility if you don’t want to. But sooner or later, life itself will pose it to us as a favorite go-to test. By that time, it may be a lot more painful to understand what we could have seen about the person next to us and taken at face value a lot earlier, in those first carefree weeks.

For me, that’s one big reason why I don’t mind taking a page from Google’s book and applying problem-solving questions to the most meaningful choices in my life.

Angela Yurchenko is a business journalist and classical musician. In her personal writing, she shares stories of the human experience through the lens of emotional intelligence, philosophy, arts & culture. Find more of Angela’s writing on Medium and on her blog, Birdsong.





Image courtesy of Anna Shvets.