It’s often pointed out that it’s unproductive to deal with conflict as a win-or-lose matter, as happens in litigation. Win-lose approaches often (maybe usually) lead to lose-lose results. There are some true zero-sum situations where my winning necessarily requires your losing (i.e., where “I win” and “you lose” mean exactly the same thing), but they aren’t common. There are also situations where we can both be winners in the sense that we’re both better off. Negotiation and mediation look for those win-win opportunities, and sometimes find them.
But there are lots of situations where a satisfactory result isn’t really a win for anyone, although it’s also not a loss. Most of the time there can (in principle, at least ) be a result in which I am satisfied (at least in part) where you are not disappointed or dissatisfied (at least not completely). Call the first an OK-for-me outcome and the second a not-bad-for-you outcome.
In some cases I might also use the word “win” to describe an OK-for-me outcome. But often I would call it a win because I don’t experience it as a win. And yet an OK-for-me outcome that isn’t a “win” is still OK for me.
It may be better to get away from framing the resolution process as a game in which there can be a winner—or where each player’s result is evaluated separately as a win or a loss for her.
The official rules of the game of Scrabble define it as a competition among two or more players. At the end of the game there is a winner—the player who has accumulated the most points. Whether she has 150 or 200 or 250 points or more, as long as she has more points than the other players she wins and they lose. If she can place a long word on a Triple Word square, the points she scores help her win. But if she can’t do that, placing her letters so as to block the other players from getting a Triple Word score will also help her win.
But I know some people who played the game differently. They were a married couple, both very good Scrabble players, and they played every Friday evening for years. But their games didn’t produce a winner. Instead, their goal was to maximize the total number of points for the two of them. That meant each of them tried to place high-scoring letters on the Triple Word squares if possible, but it also meant that each tried to avoid blocking the other.
That’s clearly not a win-lose strategy. But it isn’t really a win-win strategy either. If this week they got a higher total score than last week, they’d be pleased, but neither would say “I won.”
In a famous story used in many negotiation and conflict resolution trainings, two sisters are fighting over the one remaining orange. Their parent ends the sisters’ argument by cutting the orange in half and giving each sister one half—the King Solomon approach of compromising between the two parties’ positions. In the trainings this is contrasted with an approach that looks at the two parties’ interests: it turns out that Sister 1 wanted only the peel (to flavor a cake) and Sister 2 wanted only the pulp (to make orange juice). So had they explored their interests they would have found a solution that satisfied both interests. In this solution each sister wins without the other sister having to lose. But an even better solution might recognize that there would be enough cake (though probably not enough juice) for both of them to have a piece. So not only would each sister’s interest be satisfied, but at least Sister 2 was better off than if she had had the whole orange—because she ended up with both juice and a piece of cake.
Neither sister loses with that solution, but it’s not just that each sister wins (with respect to her original goal or interest). Sister 2 discovers that she has an additional interest (in having some cake) that is also satisfied by the solution. That’s not win-lose or win-win—it’s an expanded outcome.