Reclaiming “Win-Win”

Modern negotiation theory has much that is worthwhile. But, for Christians, there is more to winning than coming out ahead.

By Chip Zimmer

Thinking Win-Win

In Chapter 1 of the Book of Daniel we encounter a story with a surprisingly modern slant. Judah had been overrun and its inhabitants hauled off to Babylon. Daniel and several comrades were chosen to serve the Babylonian King and were expected to eat the rich food and drink from the King’s table. Rather than defile themselves this way, Daniel approached the Chief Official and requested that they be excused from the royal fare. Not surprisingly, the Official demurred. This was, after all, the King’s table and the Official’s head was at stake. 

Undeterred, Daniel shifted his focus to their guard. As he did so, he also shifted his approach. Rather than press for exemption, he suggested a creative option. “Please test your servants for ten days,” Daniel asked. “Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” The guard agreed. At the end of the ten days, Daniel and his companions appeared better nourished than the other youths, so the guard put everyone on a diet of vegetables and water. In the end, both Daniel and the guard got what mattered most to them. 

Today we call such outcomes “win-win.” Over the last forty years or so win-win thinking has come to dominate negotiation theory and teaching. It is not hard to understand why. Traditional negotiation, with its “take it or leave it” propositions, back and forth haggling, and frequent hardball tactics, can become battle in which what matters most is who is strongest, or most stubborn, or has the deepest pockets. For many of us, such contests leave us drained and feeling like we’ve been through the negotiation equivalent of a root canal. Even when we prevail, we often end up exhausted. When we lose, this competitive mindset can lead to resentment, bitterness and relational breakdown. 

Win-win promises relief from such problematic outcomes. More important, for Christians, win-win thinking has deep biblical roots. Not only do Old Testament figures such as Daniel and Abigail approach difficult conversations with win-win creativity, but the Apostle Paul, writing to Christ’s followers at Philippi, urged them to be concerned not only for their own interests, “but also for the interests of others,” practically the formula for win-win solutions. Most important of all, we see this preference for mutual blessing in Jesus, who told us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to do to others as we would have them do to us. 

For followers of Christ, much of what is written about win-win is commendable and can be embraced. However, there are limits. Like all human constructs, win-win does not always capture important priorities and there are times when a different approach may be required. As wise consumers, we need to understand when win-win promotes Christ-like outcomes and when it gets in the way. To fully reclaim win-win and integrate its insights into broad Christian norms, it helps to take a deeper look at modern negotiation theory and some of the assumptions on which it is built. 

The Roots of Win-Win

I first came across the term “win-win” in 1991 while reading Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, in which he identifies Habit 4 as “Think Win/Win.” Covey writes, “Win/Win means that agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial, mutually satisfying…Win/Win sees life as a cooperative, not a competitive arena. Most people tend to think in terms of dichotomies: strong or weak, hardball or softball, win or lose. But that kind of thinking is fundamentally flawed. It’s based on power and position rather than on principle. Win/Win is based on the paradigm that there is plenty for everybody, that one person’s success is not achieved at the expense or exclusion of the success of others.”   

His description of win-win reminded me of a book called Getting to Yes, which I’d read a few years earlier during my law school course on negotiation. Now considered a classic, Getting to Yes and its authors, Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton, introduced the concept of “principled negotiation.” Although they did not use the term “win-win,” the method they advocated in is highly compatible with Covey’s “Win/Win” and even uses some of the same language. 

Getting to Yes urges that we focus not on positions, not on what we want, but on the “interests” that underlie them, that is, the desires and motivations that lead us to want something in the first place. To get a sense of how interest-based negotiation works, consider the following story. 

A mother came into her kitchen one day and found her young daughters quarreling over which one would get the last orange. Exasperated by their bickering, she took the orange, cut it in two and gave half to each child. When she returned a few minutes later she was astonished to find that one daughter had all the orange peel and was using it to make a cake, while the other daughter had all of the fruit and was contentedly enjoying it as a snack. What the mother hadn’t understood was that each child had a different reason, a different underlying motive, for wanting the orange. In the language of principled negotiation, each had a different “interest.” Although their positions were opposed – “It’s mine,” “No it’s mine” – it turned out that their underlying interests were highly compatible. Had the mother probed beneath the surface – the point stressed in Getting to Yes – she might have figured out that each daughter could have had 100% of what she wanted, rather than the 50% she received.

This insight, that underlying desires are often more compatible than surface positions, has given rise to an entire way of approaching how we resolve our differences. Getting to Yes and its authors helped spawn a revolution in negotiation theory and practice that has led to a small industry of books, seminars and consultants. Variously called “integrative bargaining,” “collaborative negotiation,” “cooperative negotiation,” and, of course, “win-win negotiation,” the process assumes that the world is not a fixed pie to be divided among competitors, where the strongest or the most devious gets the largest slice. Rather, the pie can be expanded through creative problem-solving and, when it is, there will be plenty for everyone. There is more than one way to divide an orange.

Pareto Efficiency and Intractable Disputes

The notion that the resource pie can be expanded owes much to an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto. Pareto is one of those people whose ideas survive even when their names do not. He is credited with the “Pareto Principle,” better known as the “80-20 Rule,” which posits that 80% of outcomes are the result of 20% of causes. We usually encounter the Pareto Principle in business settings, such as “80% of sales comes from 20% of customers.”   

Pareto’s work led him into problems of resource allocation. He noticed that decisions on resource use often stopped short of maximum efficiency and he wondered why. He demonstrated this tendency among humans to settle matters prematurely, before all the gains had been wrung out of a particular resource, in what came to be known as the principle of “Pareto Optimality.” 

Pareto Optimality states that an outcome is efficient when no further gains can be made by one person without causing loss to another. Such full and efficient use of resources is economically wise and socially constructive. The principle can be stated mathematically, but you don’t have to be a mathematician to recall times when you’ve accepted a proposal that was less than ideal, perhaps to save time, or to placate the other side, or just to bring an unpleasant conversation to a close. In such times, optimizing efficiency is just not on the radar. Pareto Optimality urges us to hang in there, to push back against our human tendency to settle early, and instead look creatively for ways to “add value” and “expand the pie.” As we do, we may be able to find more for everyone.   

Hanging in there and looking for a Pareto-optimal solution is what the mother in our story failed to do. Exasperated and mostly wanting to bring their quarrel to an end, she solved matters by splitting the orange in two. Technically speaking, she imposed a “compromise,” giving each daughter part of what she wanted. But, her clever children figured out how to “expand the pie” – the orange, in this case – so that each could get more of what mattered to them. What had at first appeared as opposed positions were actually not opposed at all when underlying desires were factored in. 

As the sisters sought a more desirable outcome, they also engaged in a conversation that led them to work together to resolve their stalemate. There is an almost “invisible hand” quality to such conversations that can guide even staunch antagonists toward cooperation. Such cooperation is one of the key benefits of win-win negotiations. Win-lose typically limits our horizon to one possible solution – “it’s my orange.” This, in turn, leads to arguments, frustration, threats, and worse. We anchor our positions, insist on our way, and focus on the rightness of our cause. What often begins as simple preference can quickly become a matter of principle. In the real world, couples divorce and nations go to war when they reach this stage.

Focusing instead on finding more efficient outcomes forces us to explore more deeply what matters most to all involved. I may want the orange because I’m hungry. My underlying interest, what drives me, is not the orange, per se. It is my hunger. Eating an orange is one of many ways I can satisfy that hunger and it is in the creative search for those other ways that seemingly intractable differences can be bypassed. At its best, creative, interest-based problem solving enables us to partner with those who oppose us to identify solutions that leave both of us better off. In the process of doing so, we move toward Pareto efficiency, solve what had seemed to be unsolvable problems, and build better working relationships.  

From Pareto to Philippians

Blessing enemies, building relationships and making wise, imaginative use of God’s creation are all parts of how we are meant to live as Christians. At many levels, the win-win approach is simply good stewardship. But, it is not without problems.

First, although it sounds easy enough, seeking these kinds of optimized outcomes can be very hard to do. It not only requires fresh thinking. It also requires people able to work together, divulging their deepest desires in order to become joint creators of more efficient solutions. This can be hard when relationships aren’t going well and, in significant conflicts, they usually aren’t. In many instances, people must move through forgiveness and toward reconciliation before they can negotiate effectively. Even when there has been substantial reconciling, people may still struggle. Forgiveness and reconciliation take time to work deeply into our lives. Hearts mend slowly and re-building trust can be difficult. As a result, a still-fragile relationship is not always the easiest place to encourage Pareto optimal thinking. A mediator may be required to help put in place a win-win process.

There are other concerns. Pareto focused on efficiency, but he left justice off the table. Just because a solution is efficient does not make it right. There are times when, as Christians, we must stand for what is just and true, even when it makes collaboration harder to achieve. 
There is also the reality that most of us struggle with the strong emotions that conflicts generate. We may give in under pressure, or agree to something we dislike, just to make a problem or a person go away. In recent years, theorists have begun to bring this emotional side of negotiation into their calculations, counseling us to identify and learn to manage our emotions, as well as those of our negotiation counterparts. This is easier said than done. The truth is that sometimes we oppose others mainly because we don’t like them, even when our interests converge. I may insist on getting the orange, not because I’m hungry or fond of fruit, but because it prevents you from getting it. Scripture and prayer can be powerful antidotes to such emotional gridlock. 

Some writers have more recently focused on what is called “value claiming,” the negotiation that takes place around who receives which part of the more efficient solution. In an ironic twist, it turns out that that value claiming can be highly competitive, with each side jockeying for the more valuable piece of the expanded Pareto-efficient pie, to win the “win-win” negotiation. The title of a recent book by noted academic Lawrence Susskind captures this well: Good For You, Great For Me.   

This brings us to the most basic concern of all, the name itself – “win-win.” Our winning-obsessed culture tends to view “winning” as an ultimate goal. Getting what I want, what matters to me, can become all-consuming. Winners get the glory, losers go home. But, this raises a critical question: how do I determine what matters? In answering this, Christians can be tempted to follow what society tells us we should want, or what our friends urge us to demand, or what our sinful hearts think we deserve. Too often, we focus on the prize and fail to pay attention to what motivates us – love of God and neighbor, or something else?    

As Christians, we need to develop an authentically biblical understanding of what it means to “win.” Winning, in God’s eyes, may look like “losing” in the eyes of the world. To understand the centrality to our faith of this thought, simply consider Jesus on the cross and ask, “Who won that day?”

Without a biblical notion of what it means to “win,” we run the further risk of missing opportunities God lays before us. We should not limit our understanding of Paul’s words in Philippians 2:4 to the search for a “win-win” outcome, in the modern sense of efficient solutions that maximize interests. The context in which this verse is embedded provides us with strong additional clues to what is at stake. Philippians 2:3 advises us to consider others better than ourselves and verses 5-11 remind us that we are to have the same attitude as Jesus, “who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,” but took on the nature of a servant who was obedient even to death on a cross. This kind of attitude takes our thinking way beyond what our friends, the culture, or our own sinful hearts tell us we should pursue. 

Beyond Win-Win

I once mediated a case between two men engaged in a property dispute (I’ve changed their names and some facts to protect identities). Rob and Ben had been friends since childhood and their families were very close. They worshipped in the same church. Each believed he had a strong legal claim to the parcel. Their quarrel had caused significant strain between them, between their families, and among the community of friends who looked on. It seemed that court was their only option.

With some skepticism, they agreed to try mediation. As we worked together during the sessions, they shared with each other not only where they disagreed, but also and most critically where each had acted sinfully toward the other. There was confession, forgiveness and the beginning of real reconciliation. 

Through all this, something changed for one of them. Initially, Rob’s position had been firm – the land was his. But, over time, he began to view the property not in terms of ownership and rights, but in terms of stewardship, of what would please and honor God. Scripture helped, especially passages from Colossians 3 and Philippians 2, but even more significant were the Spirit’s internal promptings. He began to see new possibilities because he began to view things through a different lens, as a caretaker, rather than an owner. As he wrestled with all this, Rob felt strongly led to simply bless his friend. He decided to withdraw his claim. Ben and his family were stunned. They were also very grateful. It turned out that Rob’s decision helped them avert a major financial crisis.    

What happened? Rob later acknowledged that his decision did not make economic sense, as most of us understand that term. His finances took a substantial hit. But, he said he believed that God had placed him in a position to love and serve his neighbor and that meant giving up what he had previously regarded as his. When he relinquished his claim, Rob experienced a peace he had not felt in a long time. That peace would be impossible to quantify. Yet, for Rob, it was no less real.   

My hunch is that when Rob’s friends learned of his decision most of them probably thought Rob had “lost” the mediation. I doubt Rob ever thought in those terms. In arriving at his decision, he seemed to me to embody the same attitude as Jesus on the cross, taking on the nature of a servant. In laying down his life, Rob gained it. And in so doing, he provides for us a glimpse of a Christ-centered notion of what it means to “win.”

Reclaiming “Win-Win”

I’m not suggesting that Christians should always decide against their economic or any other self-interest, or that giving in to the demands of others is always the right response. Watching over our legitimate interests is also part of what it means to be good stewards.  

What I am suggesting is that, as with any tool, we learn to use win-win negotiation prayerfully and thoughtfully, with wisdom and discretion. In particular, we need to be aware of how we define what it means to “win,” looking not primarily to what matters to us, or what matters to others, but to what matters to God. In this, we have a huge advantage, for we possess a Bible that provides us with a clear sense of God’s priorities. Even here, however, we have work to do. Walking out the command to love and bless others can look different from one person to the next. We may struggle to discern what it looks like to bless this person in these circumstances. But, God promises to accompany us. He wants to teach us to follow him in the particulars of our everyday lives and to avoid formulaic solutions that too easily let us off the hook. As we learn to walk with him this way, we learn to trust him more than we fear our circumstances. 

Trusting God in the particulars of our lives also teaches us that he weaves together our disparate and not always wise choices in ways that are for our good and his glory. We learn to love and obey him more completely and to leave longer-term consequences in his all-capable hands, consequences that are beyond our control any way. As we do so, we may experience, as Rob did, that in losing our lives for Jesus’ sake we gain them. For those of us who follow Christ, that is what it means to win. And as we bring this understanding into our lives and relationships, we reclaim win-win for his kingdom. 

Chip Zimmer is a founder of Sychar Well Group and Vice President of Relational Wisdom®360. He is also a lecturer in the Peace Studies Program at the International Graduate School of Leadership in Manila, Philippines.

Referenced Works

  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Steven Covey. Published by Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster in 2005. Copyright by Steven R. Covey 1989, 2004. See page 207.
  • Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton. Published by the Penguin Group. Copyright by Roger Fisher and William Ury, 1981, 1991. See pages 56-57.
  • Good For You, Great For Me, by Lawrence Susskind. Published by Public Affairs, a member of Perseus Books Group. Copyright by Lawrence Susskind, 2014.