There is no Such Thing As a ‘Win-Win’ Negotiation

Kent Phillips
5 min readOct 15, 2020

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Chris Voss is arguably the world’s leading expert on negotiation. In his book, Never Split the Difference, he highlights counter-intuitive tactics and strategies that he learned from his 24 years in the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit.

I used to believe that Think Win:Win was the most effective strategy for negotiations until Chris Voss changed my perspective.

Now I focus on using intentional emotional intelligence to improve my negotiation results.

Here is an introduction to why win-win is not the best negotiation strategy and a set of seven intentional emotional intelligence suggestions for how you can improve your own negotiation skills.

The truth is, there’s no such thing as a “win-win” compromise.

An assumption with “win-win” is that each party will need to sacrifice something to come to a compromise. Sacrificing to come to a compromise is well-intentioned, however, the agreements it creates are flawed or never quite hold up to expectations. Each person’s sense of fairness is different.

There are no universal rules for fairness in negotiation beyond basic human rights, which often are assumed in most negotiations. If each person’s sense of fairness and value is different, then could it make more sense to avoid aggravating your counterpart with a comprise request?

Looking to research, behavioral psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in 2002 for applying the seemingly illogical concept of Prospect theory to the field of economics.

Here’s an introduction to Prospect theory.

In a highlight from the Noble price winning study, “the aggravation that one experiences in losing a sum of money appears to be greater than the pleasure associated with gaining the same amount.”

Applying this to a win-win compromise, no matter how much one earns in a negotiation, they’ll inevitably be forced to experience some degree of loss. The loss will (likely) emotionally overshadow the win. In short, compromise primes us for disappointment.

Moving from economics to negotiation, Chris Voss provides seven different strategies that avoid disappointment for customers by creating trust and evaluating how to get the best result during any negotiation.

Instead of using a win-win perspective, consider using some of the strategies below from Chris Voss’s consulting firm the Black Swan Group’s ebook on negotiation.

1. Avoid Using the Language of the Ego

Instead of presenting a solution at the beginning of a negotiation, focus on nurturing trust, fostering a collaborative environment, and listening to your counterpart’s point of view. Use prepared questions that will encourage your counterpart to talk, awarding them a sense of control. First, you need to gain their trust and build influence.

2. Be Willing to Hear Your Counterpart out and Open to Learning from Their Ideas

Be present. Listen on multiple levels with the goal of comprehension. If you listen effectively, use labels, and calibrated questions to uncover your counterpart’s core drives and perceptions, you’ll learn what’s fueling their decisions.

Once you have this baseline understanding, you can determine how to adequately address those needs and anticipate accusations that they may have about your desired solution.

3. Uncover Value Perceptions

Before you agree to talk terms, you need to understand how your counterpart perceives the overall value of a contract and what individual components they value unequally. What’s dictating their standards and driving their decisions?

If your counterpart is focused on cost, find out what other terms they value to determine where you have room to adjust your subscription or services offering. If they value a lower cost more than receiving the full package of services you offer, why not trim the contract to include limited services at a reduced cost?

If time is their chief concern, can you get them to tell you how much they will save or revenue they will generate by delivering an expedited timeline? By locating these value perceptions and bringing these items of unequal value to the negotiating table, you’ll expand the pie and create more avenues to influence the outcome.

4. Demonstrate Understanding and Present Options

Understanding can be demonstrated using tactical empathy, labels, mirrors, and summaries. By preparing a cheat sheet of positive and negative labels and calibrated questions prior to the negotiation, you’ll help improve your flexibility during the negotiation call or meeting and avoid using counterproductive communication cliches.

Focus on presenting options rather than framing a solution early on in the negotiation process, as this will ask your counterpart to work with you to create a solution

5. Anticipate Negatives

You can’t avoid the negative element in a negotiation, you can only prepare for it. To prepare, conduct an accusation audit and come up with some negative labels to address those accusations and dissolve the attack.

If you’re tasked with repairing a bad business relationship with a client who feels slighted by a previous interaction with your company, prepare labels to acknowledge their point of view without accepting responsibility.

6. Embrace “No” as a Beginning Rather Than an End

Give your counterpart permission to say “no” to your ideas helps them retain their sense of autonomy. If you allow your counterpart to say “no” to define what they do value this can help further negotiation and make them more willing to say “yes” down the line. When people feel protected and in control, their emotional register falls back to baseline, and their decision-making abilities improve.

7. Address Implementation

Creating a joint roadmap and implementation plan that has earned buy-in from everyone who will be involved is essential. What might the consequences be if one part of the deal isn’t upheld?

To avoid disappointment down the road, address how those potential downfalls will be accounted for in the implementation process. Focus on asking calibrated questions using a “when/what?” or “if/what?” structure — what we like to call “time travel” questions.

This format is designed to make your counterpart think about something other than the present moment. The first “if” and “when” creates a condition or moves them to a point in time, and the “what” asks them to follow up and participate in the implementation plan. For example, you could ask, “When this breaks down in implementation, what are we going to do to fix it?”

Lastly, here is also a one-page negotiation sheet that you can use for every negotiation.

Thank you Yan-David Erlisch for this one-sheet concept and summary here

Continuous improvement in my negotiation skills is the only way I know how to get to better results in my negotiations. I hope these strategies and resources can help you in your professional and personal lives.

If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read, I highly recommend reading Never Split The Difference too.

Thank you.

Additional References:

Why is ‘win-win’ is NOT the best solution? | Chris Voss — Youtube Interview

Negotiation One-SheetGoogle Doc Template

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating Contracts eBook The Black Swan Group

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Kent Phillips

Community Growth | Project Management. Mentoring & Meditation enthusiast. Good gift giver.