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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Dancing the Win-Win Waltz

We all have them. They often seem to come at the most inopportune times. They hit us squarely in the face and cause us to spit, sputter, and spew. They are hurtful and damaging, often to the point of becoming cancerous and even lethal to our relationships and our personal health. They cannot be "wished away" and most cannot be merely forgotten with the passage of time. They have the ability to cause generations of hate and destruction. They are personal conflicts.

Conflict stems froms the Latin conflīctus meaning "a striking together," equivalent to conflīg ( ere ) meaning "to strike together, contend" ( con- con- + flīgere "to strike"). When a conflict between us and another human occurs, we, who supposedly live in the most intelligent, advanced society of all time, most often react by striking out --  we emotionally or physically pummel our adversary.

To most, a conflict equals violence or violent action. Like animals with our backs against the wall, we go into attack mode.  And, of course, we continue to make the initial conflict escalate with every hurtful action of aggression we take. We are programmed to win despite the opposition.

In truth, we may learn something by studying animal behavior. Conflict resolution has been studied in non-humans, like dogs, cats, monkeys, snakes, elephants, and primates. Scientists have found conflicts between animals of the same species usually are of “limited war” type, not causing serious injury. This is often explained as due to group or species selection for behavior benefiting the species rather than individuals. Yet, a “limited war” strategy benefits individual animals as well as the species. Survival is achieved.

Scientists have long believed that the general function of aggression in animals is to create space between individuals. Now, some studies with primates reveal that aggression is more common among relatives and within a group than between groups. This aggression within a group results in a very interesting dynamic. Instead of creating a distance between the individuals, primates are more intimate in the period after the aggressive incident. More intimate? Yes.

Funneling Aggression Into Intimacy

This animal behavior suggests humans become closer after "getting their aggression out" in some "limited war" manner. In a human conflict, two sides reach a stalemate, a sticking point. Then, with blinders in place, the opponents spend so much energy promoting their individual arguments that they often exhaust themselves and even lose sight of their original concerns.

Once the initial steam clears and the towering wall of division becomes visible once more, time is best spent on finding a new solution that can stop this "limited war" before it does permanent damage to the individuals involved. Enter the art of win-win conflict resolution.

In Western cultural contexts, such as Canada and the United States, successful conflict resolution usually involves fostering communication among disputants, problem solving, and drafting agreements that meet their underlying needs.

In these situations, conflict resolvers often talk about finding the win-win solution, or a mutually satisfying scenario, for everyone involved. But, getting a win-win result in conflict can be very difficult to achieve. It involves both sides venting their initial concerns to travel to "unexplored ground." When people in conflict funnel their individual aggression into meaningful communication to create a new resolution, a third option, a win-win resolution, may occur.

Susan Heitler, a Denver Clinical psychologist and author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two, says there is a secret to finding win-win solutions. People should not insist from the outset on their initial solution or suggested plan of action. Instead, they both should clarify their underlying concerns and design a new solution that satisfies these.

 Heitler contends that some compromises leave both sides feeling compromised. For example, if a husband wants to live in San Francisco and his wife wants to live in New York, a compromise of settling in Kansas City will leave them both unhappy. This is a lose-lose compromise. While occasional problems do lend themselves to a meet-in-the-middle or a split-the-difference compromise solution, compromise in most instances is a lose-lose strategy. 

Compromises are problematic as well for internal struggles, like those between what a person feels he should do and what he really wants. For example, if he loves two different potential partners, can he compromise by taking half of one partner and half of the other? How ridiculous. This probably means that the best solution is to look for another "Mrs. Right." This choice offers a third opportunity for conflict resolution.

Win-win, lose-lose -- this can be confusing. Here is a well-known example of the resolution in action. It's known as the "prisoners' dilemma."

"In some situations, lose-lose outcomes occur when win-win outcomes might have been possible.The classic example of this is called the prisoners' dilemma in which two prisoners must decide whether to confess to a crime. Neither prisoner knows what the other will do. The best outcome for prisoner A occurs if he/she confesses, while prisoner B keeps quiet.

"In this case, the prisoner who confesses and implicates the other is rewarded by being set free, and the other (who stayed quiet) receives the maximum sentence, as s/he didn't cooperate with the police, yet they have enough evidence to convict. (This is a win-lose outcome.) The same goes for prisoner B.

"But if both prisoners confess (trying to take advantage of their partner), they each serve the maximum sentence (a lose-lose outcome). If neither confesses, they both serve a reduced sentence (a win-win outcome, although the win is not as big as the one they would have received in the win-lose scenario)."

(Brad Spangler,"Win-Win, Win-Lose, and Lose-Lose Situations," Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: June 2003)

Here is Heitler's "Win-Win Waltz Worksheet" that could help those trying to find conflict resolution. The simple exercise allows both parties to present their arguments, vent their feelings, then redirect their efforts in harmony by concentrating on dancing to the beautiful music of win-win.

The Win-Win Waltz Worksheet


A's Initial solution proposal: 


B's Initial solution proposal:



  • _______________________________________________________
  • _______________________________________________________
  • _______________________________________________________
  • _______________________________________________________
  • _______________________________________________________
  • _______________________________________________________

Note: Be sure to list all the concerns of both participants on one list, indicating that any concern of one of you immediately becomes a shared concern of both of you.

STEP 3: CREATE a WIN-WIN SOLUTION, responsive to all the concerns

  • Start by identifying the most strongly felt concerns, building the plan initially around the most strongly felt concerns.
  • Add enhancements until all the concerns are responded to.
  • Suggest only what you yourself might be willing to do.
  • Express appreciation of what the other offers
  • Add additional concerns that each proposed solution may raise, and create solution options responsive to these concerns as well.
  • Aim to build a solution set, a comprehensive solution

Potential win-win



Circle back one more time: have all the concerns been responded to in the plan of action? Add further details to the plan as needed.

In sum, WIN-WIN means that the plan of action has elements responsive to all of the concerns of both of you. While neither of you may have "gotten your way" with regard to you initial solution ideas, both of you will have succeeded in getting what you wanted!

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