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Is “Win-Win” negotiation really possible?

Updated: May 13

I often hear people talking about the concept of "win-win" in negotiations. Interestingly, what they describe as a win-win outcome often looks like a splitting the difference. "I want to pay $100 and you want $200 so let's agree $150 - win-win!" I want to challenge the thinking of what win-win is, because to me, this example is a mere compromise. I don't see any winners.

I remember attending a seminar some years ago where a senior practitioner, whose whole business is about resolving conflicts collaboratively, delivered a 15-minute presentation about his experiences as a junior union representative of a major union.

During this presentation, the presenter referred on several occasions to the concept of “win-win” negotiations. And when he did so, there was the same degree of scorn in his voice that I might use when discussing how “kind” it is for the “lovely” dog owners to leave little “presents” on my nature strip.

It quickly became clear that the reason for his aversion to the win-win idea lay in the definition of what win-win means. He described a situation similar to the mere compromise described above.

In this post I will clarify what win-win negotiations should look like and what you should be aiming for in your negotiations.

What is a win-win outcome?

Often people see the $150 compromise as a “win-win” because each party got a better outcome than the other party's initially offer. Because each party made concessions from their initial positions, the other side had a “win”.

On this basis, I can see why people may scorn win-win negotiations. Both parties probably walked away from the negotiation disappointed, because they didn’t get what they wanted.

At best, the negotiation seems to be a bit of a haggle where both sides start with competing positions and make some arbitrary concessions, aiming for a mid-point compromise. In which case, a bit like a tug of war, the winner is the party with the most concessions delivered to their side of the mid-point.

I would argue that the result here was closer to a lose-lose as both parties have made concessions without understanding what the other party was trying to achieve or why those concessions needed to be made.

So what would a genuine win-win solution have looked like?

In an interest-based negotiation a win-win outcome is one where the agreement cannot be improved by further discussions. There is no value left on the table and all creative options have been thoroughly explored. This compares with the mere compromise of a traditional haggle or positional negotiation.

Of course, without knowing all of the details of this small negotiation, it is hard to know what the optimal solution would have looked like. We can however, identify some of the processes can use to ensure you reach for win-win outcomes:

  1. Be clear on what is really important to you. Is it just about the money? Is timing of payment or payment mode relevant to you? Is there potential for further transactions? Is the ethical behaviour of your counterpart relevant to you?

  2. Spend time uncovering your counterpart’s interests. What are their needs, hopes, goals, and concerns? How does this transaction fit with their other needs?

  3. Don’t jump to an immediate compromise. Look for ways to creatively add value to both parties. Are there mutual interests that can be satisfied by co-operation. Are there high-value, low cost benefits that can be offered (eg. a google review).

With a little more understanding, it can be clear that win-win can be a real goal and not just a negotiation platitude to cover up the fact that neither party has won anything.

For more information about how to negotiate effectively, or for assistance with your next negotiation, contact us for a confidential, no-obligation discussion.

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