Win-Win Negotiation

Finding Solutions That Work for Everyone

Win-Win Negotiation - Finding Solutions That Work for Everyone

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Learn how to improve your negotiation skills and reach mutually acceptable compromises.

Do you dread entering a negotiation? Do you worry that what you want will not match what the other person wants to give? Do you worry about having to "play hardball" and souring a good working relationship? After all, for someone to win, someone else has to lose, right? Well, not necessarily.

Chances are, you can find a solution that leaves all parties feeling like winners by adopting the aptly-named "win-win" approach to negotiation.

In this article, we examine the meaning of win-win negotiation, and we explore how you can apply the concept of "principled negotiation" within win-win, to build mutual respect and understanding while getting result that you both want.

What Is Win-Win Negotiation?

A win-win negotiation is a careful exploration of both your own position, and that of your opposite number, in order to find a mutually acceptable outcome that gives you both as much of what you want as possible. If you both walk away happy with what you've gained from the deal, then that's a win-win!

In an ideal win-win situation, you will find that the other person wants what you are prepared to trade, and that you are prepared to give what he or she wants. If this is not the case, and one of you must give way, then it is fair to negotiate some form of compensation for doing so. But both sides should still feel comfortable with the outcome.


People's positions are rarely as opposed as they may initially appear, and the other person may have very different goals from the ones you expect! So, try to keep an open mind and be flexible in your thinking.

Principled Negotiation Within the Win-Win Scenario

Establishing a strong position is a good starting point for a negotiation. But if you become too entrenched, conflict can quickly arise and the discussion may break down.

You can avoid this by using a form of win-win negotiation called "principled negotiation."

Former Harvard Law School professor Roger Fisher, and academic, anthropologist, and negotiation expert William Ury developed this approach in their 1981 book, "Getting to Yes." They identified five steps of principled negotiations, and argued that negotiations are successful when they encourage cooperation toward a common goal.

Let's look at the five stages of principled negotiation:

1. Separate People From the Problem

First, avoid identifying your opposite number as your "opponent." Be sure to focus on the issue at hand, and try to ignore personality differences. To do this, be aware of three factors: perception, emotion and communication.

According to Fisher and Ury, perception means "putting yourself in their shoes," so you are better placed to see common ground or a compromise solution. Our article, Empathy at Work, can help you to do this. You may be convinced that your position is fair, reasonable and "right," but it's likely so will the other person.

Examine and acknowledge your emotions, and to ask yourself why you feel the way you do. For example, could a previous bad experience in a negotiation be affecting your behaviour in this one?


Remain calm during the negotiations, as this will aid your decision-making processes. Observe the emotions of the other party, and try not to respond in kind if the discussion becomes "heated."

Instead, use your emotional intelligence skills to understand why the debate has taken this turn, and make an effort to understand each party's underlying interests, needs and concerns.

Finally, make sure that your communication is clear and precise, to avoid misunderstandings. Use active listening techniques, such as looking directly at the speaker, listening carefully, and allowing each person to finish before you respond.

2. Focus on Interests, Not Positions

People are seldom "difficult" just for the sake of it, and almost always there are real and valid differences sitting behind conflicting positions. The way that each person sees the issue may be influenced by many factors, such as their values, beliefs, status, responsibilities, and cultural background.

Try to keep the conversation courteous and avoid attributing blame. Once everyone knows that their interests have been considered, they are more likely to be receptive to different points of view.

For example, if you're negotiating with your boss to get more resources for your team, consider that he may be under pressure to reduce costs. If you look beyond your two positions, you may find that you have a common interest, such as increasing your team's productivity.

3. Invent Options for Mutual Gain

By now, each side will likely have a better understanding of the other's interests, and a solution might be obvious. You may even be on the verge of agreement. If not, stay open to the idea that a completely new position may exist and use the negotiation process to explore your options.

To return to our example, let's say that you've identified increased productivity as a mutual interest, but your company can't afford new staff or equipment. You could see this as an opportunity to assess working practices, training opportunities, and inexpensive ways to increase efficiency.


Brainstorm as many ideas as you can to find a solution to the problem. Be receptive to all suggestions, then develop the most promising ones into new proposals that you can bring to the negotiating table.

4. Use Objective Criteria

This isn't just "setting out the facts," as different underlying needs, interests, opinions, and goals can cause people to interpret facts differently, or cause you to select only those facts that support your position.

For example, during an interdepartmental negotiation in your company about the launch date of a new product, you become convinced that rushing it to market as early as possible is the best option. There’s a danger your position could become entrenched, and your willingness to listen lessened.

Yes, there’s some evidence to support this view within the marketing data, but also indications that delaying the launch until later in the year, to coincide with a national holiday, would also be good for sales in the longer term. It would also give your marketing team more time to prepare a campaign.

Try to agree on a set of objective criteria that provide a framework for your discussion. These could include measurements such as legal standards, market value, a mission statement, or contractual terms. Agreeing on standards demonstrates shared values, and a commitment to reaching an agreement.

Returning to our first example, both you and your boss could agree on a budget as a basis for discussion regarding more resources for your team, and proceed on the basis that any changes must be made within these financial limitations.

5. Know Your BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement)

Your BATNA is your favored fallback option if you can't get everything that you want. This is not the same as a "bottom line," which is a fixed position that can limit your options and may prevent you from discovering a new course of action.

Instead, think through what might happen if the negotiation doesn't achieve your desired result, and select the most attractive alternatives. Evaluate these alternatives and at the end of that process, the most promising alternative solution is your BATNA.

Returning to our example, if you start the negotiation with a "bottom line" demand for two extra departmental staff members, and your company refuses, the negotiation falls at the first hurdle. However, if you started with this request, but your BATNA was to achieve a commitment to training and updated software, you'd be in a better position to get a good result.


You can read more about preparing for a negotiation in our article, Essential Negotiation Skills. You can also learn how to avoid some of the pitfalls of sealing a deal by reading our article 10 Common Negotiation Mistakes.

Win-Win Versus Win-Lose Negotiation

In a negotiation where you don't expect to deal with the person concerned again, and you don't need their continued goodwill, it may be appropriate to seek a "bigger piece of the pie" for yourself. This "win-lose" approach, often called "distributive bargaining," is usually used for negotiating the price of goods or services (for example, a house or a car).

Similarly, when the stakes are high, it may be appropriate to use legitimate "gamesmanship" (pushing the rules to their limits) to gain advantage, but without crossing the line into brinkmanship. But, when you want to have an ongoing, productive relationship with the person you're negotiating with, these techniques can have serious drawbacks:

  • One person "playing hardball" puts the other person at a disadvantage. This may lead to reprisals later.
  • If the losing party needs to fulfill some part of a deal, they may decide to become uncooperative and awkward.
  • Using tricks and manipulation during a negotiation can undermine trust and damage teamwork.

Key Points

Win-win negotiation can enable both parties in a discussion to feel that they have made a satisfactory deal, and that neither is the "loser."

It's particularly useful when you have an ongoing relationship with the other party, and you wish to remain on good terms.

"Principled negotation" is a common win-win strategy, devised by Roger Fisher and William Ury, that can help you to negotiate an agreement in a civil way. The technique consists of five stages, or principles:

1. Separate the people from the problem.

2. Focus on interests, not positions.

3. Invent options for mutual gain.

4. Use objective criteria.

5. Know your BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement)

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Comments (4)
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hello Ed,

    That's a great take on the perception of managing win-win situations. Thank you for the feedback.
  • Over a month ago infoseeker wrote
    This is a very good article and I totally endorse seeking a win-win resolution. I would, however, add a caution to your commenters about asking "why". If you ask your kid "Why did you do that?", you most likely will get an excuse. Or, your boss asks you "why". The question, itself, can be seen as intrusive.

    The problem with "why" is that behavior is multi-determined and sometimes we may have many reasons for doing what we do.

    It may be better to ask "what" as in "What do you want the orange for?" or "What did you intend to accomplish with what you did?" Asking what taps into motivation, needs, and the basis for an action. And, this is often the information you are really seeking.

    Just a thought.

  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    I've also learnt to ask 'why, why and why' again in order to get to what it is someone really wants from a negotiation situation. I even do it with myself at times when I want to do do or buy something that is expensive to try and see if my goal really is what I think it is or if I have another goal deep down inside that may be satisfied in another manner.

    Kind regards
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