5 Behaviors of True Win-Win Negotiators

Whether you realize it or not, your life is a series of negotiations. Some are grand negotiations that rarely come along and require sizable effort (e.g., buying a house, negotiating a job offer, or acquiring a new business). Other negotiations are more commonplace (e.g., settling on a movie with a friend, picking a family vacation spot, or determining how to spend a small financial windfall).

Odds are that on any given day, you find yourself in multiple negotiations with friends, family members, co-workers, direct reports, and even your boss. For many of us, negotiating happens so often, we fail to even notice it, think about it, or prepare for it. We just do it. And, frankly we often do it poorly.

I’m currently teaching a class on negotiation at Vanderbilt University. Our text is Leigh Thompson’s The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator. One thread that runs through her entire book is the importance of approaching negotiation not from a fixed-sum perspective, but from a view of abundance – the pie can get bigger if we work together.

“Probably the most common myth is that most negotiations are fixed-sum, or fixed-pie, in nature, such that whatever is good for one person must ipso facto be bad for the other…The trust is that most negotiations are not purely fixed-sum…if parties work together they can create more joint value than if they are purely combative.” – Leigh Thompson

The reality is that many of us may comprehend the concept of win-win at an intellectual level, but when met with conflict, we default into another position (e.g. win-lose, lose-win, or lose-lose). This happens for many reasons including our emotional state, lack of preparation, the counterpart’s actions, time pressures, etc.

If you want to become a true win-win negotiator, might I suggest five behaviors to help you get started.

1. Think win-win

Yes, this isn’t actually a behavior, it’s more of a mindset. However, leaving it off the list would be a true disservice. So, work with me.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People discusses the importance of a win-win mindset (Habit 4). Win-win people come into situations looking for mutually beneficial solutions. They don’t have the mindset that they will win at all costs, nor are they willing to play the martyr and let someone walk all over them.

They think let’s either find a win for both parties, or agree to ‘no deal’.

2. Ask “What’s a win for you?”

If someone comes to you and says that they have a win-win for you, your first thought should be, How do you know what a win is for me? You haven’t asked. 

Only you can define a win for yourself.

Win-win negotiators start by asking what a win is for the other party. They don’t assume. They recognize that what motivates one person may not motivate another.

So, they ask the question, listen to your answer, and confirm understanding.

3. Share “Here’s a win for me…”

Once they understand what a win is for the other person, win-win negotiators take the time to describe what a win is to them. Asking about the other person’s win and sharing their own, is critical to creating win-win agreements and relationships..

It’s my experience that many communication, performance, and relationship breakdowns stem from a lack of shared expectations. Win-win negotiators ensure that both parties are clear as to what a win-win looks like.

4. Explore possibilities

We are amazing creatures. Our ability to imagine and create is unlimited. Use this strength. In knowing what is a win for each party, win-win negotiators then explore how to create a situation where both wins co-exist, or better yet, something even better is created. Exploration allows each to determine how to overcome obstacles, address risks, or make both irrelevant. Win-win negotiators are not afraid to openly explore possibilities. In fact, they know that failing to do so, often leaves value on the table that no one is able to claim.

5. Stay true to agreements

Win-win negotiators know that their greatness strength is their ability to create, maintain, and, if needed, restore trust. Without trust, people won’t share their interests or explore possibilities. So, avoid tactics like backpedaling on agreements or emotional stunts designed to garner a bigger piece of the pie. True win-win negotiators act with integrity in every situation.

Your Turn…

The next time you venture into a negotiation – at work or home – take the time to reflect on how well you are applying these behaviors. It might make all the difference.


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