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The idea of zero-sum games is that every gain is offset by loss: there is a winner and a loser. When something takes, something else has to give. This is the mindset into which many people enter negotiations: "If I win, he loses. If he wins, I lose." But life isn't a zero-sum game, and negotiation doesn't have to be either. Maybe some games have to have a loser; but win-win negotiations do not.

Technically, a win-win negotiation refers not to the specific process, but the destination. Usually, these sorts of outcomes are made more likely by an "interest based" approach but this is not absolutely necessary

When the destination is win-win, the hope is that the solution reached is the best possible outcome, under the circumstances, for both parties. It does not always mean that each side got exactly what it wanted - but sometimes this is possible. For our purposes, a win-win refers to negotiation that provides a satisfactory outcome for each party.
One of the reasons why mediation is so often preferable to litigation is that there doesn't have to be a verdict; both sides can emerge, if not happy, then at least satisfied, with the outcome. There are, of course, other reasons to strive for the win-win over the win-lose.

  • Win-lose situations cause turmoil and hard feelings. Some parties behave like a five-year-old who has just lost a game, kicking, screaming, and saying, "It's not fair!" Others behave like a five-year-old who has just won, gloating and rubbing his opponent's face in his victory. When one party loses in negotiation, it can have long-term emotional as well as financial consequences; it is to be expected that this will continue to cause turmoil and discord.
  • The relationship will change with a win-lose situation - and not for the better. If you have to continue working with the "winner," it can be very difficult to maintain a professional attitude, especially if they helpfully remind you again and again that you lost. On the other side, it can be difficult working with the loser, who is intent on focusing on the past instead of the future. Sometimes the loser will be annoyed enough with the loss that the battle is not truly over and you may suffer unforeseen consequences as that person tries to "even the score".
  • You move into conflict territory. Instead of having a disagreement that you can settle, you instantly have a conflict situation where both sides feel the need to win. The initial issue is buried, at least in part, by emotions and the need to be right and usually no one really wins.
  • With win-win negotiations, both parties can explore a variety of options. Sometimes the best solution is one you would never have thought of without the prompting and input from a mediator and/or the other party. If you want to resolve the problem, not necessarily "win," exploring options with a creative spirit is a very good place to start.
  • You avoid lose-lose negotiations. It's like when you fight with a sibling over a ball; you call mom in to mediate and she ends up taking the ball away. No one wins. Negotiation should not leave you worse off than before. Be sure to do your research before you start to negotiate. Maybe you are already getting a better deal than it is reasonable to expect .
Life is fairly limited if you are stuck in the mindset that everything must be either a win or lose situation; a host of options and possibilities open up when you believe that it is possible to create another outcome. Give it a try - the real loser is someone who cheats themselves out of a better outcome.

Contributed by John Curtis, Attorney and Conflict Coach


Larry Hart

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