June 26th, 2003

Dr. Thomas Gordon was an important pioneer in “win-win” science. His most popular book was Parent Effectiveness Training This morning we feature one of Gordon’s students.

Can “win-win” be a Losing Proposition?

Joe Wilmot

I don’t like losing. Not that I’m a sore loser who can’t stand the idea of another person beating me in the spirit of friendly competition, but when someone forces their solution to a problem on me it just feels lousy. I think it’s pretty safe to say that just about everybody else feels the same: No one likes losing.

Some people hate losing so much that they try every tactic at their disposal to insure they win, even if it’s at the expense of other peoples’ losing. Others may feel that it’s okay to win at others’ expense if they’re doing the “right thing.” No matter what the reason, whenever someone wins at the expense of someone else’s losing, someone’s left behind feeling resentful. Think about the cost of that resentfulness in our interactions with our spouses, children, co-workers, vendors, customers, etc. If we no longer fully engage (or alter the way we engage) others for fear of losing “yet again,” you can imagine the high cost when others lose our cooperation.

For many years now the idea of win-win has gained lots of popularity. “The world is a rich place, plentiful in its resources, there’s always more than one way to solve a problem,” say its proponents—but is that really true? Can a win-win solution to every single problem be sought, found and implemented successfully?

I seriously don’t think so.

Many people agree, and because they do they’re willing to resort to win-lose problem-solving at times. “That’s just the way the world works,” they say, or “I don’t have time to negotiate endlessly.” Without a formula for brainstorming, selecting, evaluating and choosing mutually acceptable solutions—and without the language skills that allow people to be real clear about their needs—win-win becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible. And if not clearly impossible, at least impossible when you have serious time constraints.

It had always bugged me that Dr. Gordon chose to name his conflict resolution model “No-Lose” instead of the catchy and positive-sounding “Win-Win.” But I also never thought about win-win critically until I heard our president, Linda Adams, explaining it to someone:

We don’t teach win-win because win-win just isn’t always possible. There will be times when you can’t find more than one solution to a problem and that someone will have to give in. The idea behind our No-Lose model, then, is not saying that every party will always get her/his needs met. But when people are able to communicate clearly and openly about needs, then there are ways to reach a friendly compromise. Maybe one party doesn’t technically win this time, but he or she also hasn’t lost.

That subtle distinction makes all the difference in the world.

I’m reminded of a story told to us by a client of GTI’s, John Dietz of Miller-Valentine Group. They’d had a huge conflict in which some people had proposed the closure of one of their divisions. Obviously, the person in charge of that division didn’t want it to close, so he had some very strong feelings about it. In John’s own words:

A while back we were looking at the possibility of eliminating one of our construction companies. Each was a division within the company. The process wasn’t going too well—it was rocky.

I introduced the idea of using L.E.T.’s 6-step problem-solving process [The No-Lose Method]. It went from rocky and combative to peoples’ getting their feelings out into the open. Once all the information was on the table, the head of Division II actually voted to dissolve his own division. He stated that he’d felt heard and fairly dealt with, and that he was able to vote on the dissolution of his own division with a clear conscience—it was a strategic issue, not a personal one. I attribute the success of this situation entirely to the 6-step process.

The real loss of win-win is that there are people out there who—rightly—just don’t think it’s always possible to achieve it. Because of this conviction they’re likely to continue using win-lose (if they’re the ones winning, of course) and to reap the consequences of others’ feeling resentment towards them.

The real advantage of No-Lose is that it’s a completely different posture. It’s realistic in that it acknowledges that compromise is a necessary component of human interaction. But it also acknowledges that compromise can work when every party feels understood, respected, and when there’s a feeling that there is reciprocity in the relationship.

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