The Negotiator Magazine

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Where “Win-Lose” and “Win-Win” Negotiators Fall Short

by David A. Lax and James K. Sebenius

There are many kinds of one-dimensional negotiators. (In fact, the world is full of them.) But most fall into one of two broad categories, which–for the purposes of this article–we’ll call “win-lose” and “win-win” negotiators.

Whether you’re a pro or a novice, you’ll instantly recognize these two types. They offer competing seminars. They do battle in academic journals. And in many cases, they engage at the table.

Different Styles

Win-lose types are from the old school of bargaining, although you can certainly still find plenty of them plying their trade in boardrooms, town hall basements, and rented conference facilities around the world. Their bookshelves bulge with manuals on adversarial ploys, such as Winning Through Intimidation and Start With No. They battle and scrap for the best price, the biggest share of the pie, and so on. They sit down at the bargaining table intending to walk away not only with their share of the goodies, but most of yours, too.

Win-win negotiators, by contrast, have for some time now represented the New Way. They promise innovative solutions, more value, and better relationships. The win-win library consists of books that emphasize the cooperative potential of negotiation, including valuable ones like Getting to Yes and Getting Past No. Win-win types don’t sit around cooking up unilateral ways to get more than their fair share at the table; they’d rather engage in joint brainstorming sessions to come up with creative solutions that “make the pie bigger” for all.

Experience has probably given you an intuitive feel for the pluses and minuses inherent in each approach. Yes, the aggressive win-lose negotiator gets a better deal some of the time. But he or she may damage relationships in the process, may overlook more creative agreements, and may even precipitate a deadlock, thereby causing promising discussions to break down unnecessarily. (Although, we’re the first to admit, some discussions deserve to break down.)

The earnest win-win player may be more focused on creativity–and almost certainly has more friends–but may come up short in tough encounters. It’s a trade-off, and it’s not always a beneficial trade-off. In the name of long-term relationships, naïve win-win negotiators may give up achievable gains in the here and now.

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July 2007