Win-Win Is for Losers!

Published: Apr 10, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Michael Soon Lee

Nearly every negotiating book ever written takes a win-win approach to agreements. However, master negotiators know that win-win is for losers. In reality, nobody believes in win-win, because people play to win—not to tie—and certainly not to lose.

In martial arts, for example, whether you are sparring for practice or in a tournament, you do not want your opponent to win. Even if the person across the mat from you is your best friend or your brother or sister, you still don’t want them to beat you. Martial artists play to win and so do you. There’s nothing wrong with this attitude because the need to win is human nature, for both men and women, and it’s what drives people to do their best.

Let’s be clear—winning doesn’t mean breaking even. If your hockey or soccer team ends an important game in a tie do you consider it a win? If you are an avid gambler you would not consider yourself a winner if you went to Las Vegas, played blackjack with $100 for three hours, and left the table with $100.

Contracts are signed with each party’s own interests in mind. Leading up to the contract is the negotiation, and the winning attitude must start there. This is not to say that the opposing party does not get what she wants out of a deal as well, but an experienced negotiator lets the other person have it on his own terms. The mark of a master negotiator is to walk away from the table with what he came for while letting the other party feel she got a good deal as well. Now that’s skill.

Win-win suggests a tie wherein you, in the best case scenario, end up with a dissatisfying compromise. You will always get the best deal in bargaining if you adopt a “win big/win small” philosophy. This strategy allows you to get what you came for while still making sure the other party’s needs are met as well.

When you truly win, all of your needs are met and you obtain as many of your wants as possible. You must recognize the difference between wants and needs and how to keep them at the forefront of your mind.

Remember this cardinal rule: bargain with your own interests in mind and assume the other party will do the same. Too many people feel guilty if they think they are getting the better end of a deal. Don’t fall into that trap. The other person won’t agree to any deal where you are the only one to benefit. For all you know, the person may be going through a divorce, job transfer, illness, need cash, have tax problems, or some other situation that you are helping him to resolve.

Here’s a case in point: there was a story in the newspaper a few years back about a man who ran off with his secretary after telling his wife he wanted a divorce. Before he left town to vacation with his new sweetheart, he hastily called his wife and told her to sell his Mercedes for “as much as you can get” and to send him the money in the Bahamas. She sold the brand new car for one dollar. Now, the buyer of that Mercedes definitely got a good deal, but he needn’t have felt guilty. The wife found immeasurable satisfaction in sending her ex-husband a check for a single dollar. There could literally be a million reasons why someone wants to buy or sell, the fairness of which is not our concern. (Unless, of course, when a person is not mentally sound).

Here's another example. A family had some large, unused items cluttering up their garage so they called a company to come over to see how much it would cost to haul it away. After looking at the freezer, file cabinets, and other assorted pieces of furniture the company quoted $200. The family told them they would have to think about it and reminded the company that if they had to come back to do the job, it would cost more time and money for gas. At that point, the haulers offered to drop the price down to $175. The family stalled, suggesting that they might call in a non-profit group that would gladly accept the items and take them away for free. After a little more back and forth the two parties eventually settled for $110. The family was prepared to pay at least $150--the minimum cost of having to do the job themselves—so they won big. On the other hand, the hauling company still got $110 which, for them, meant they won a little as well. Certainly this was more of a win big/win small result than a win-win.

To win big you must see an opening and go for it without hesitation. If a martial artist wants to break a brick with his hand he cannot hesitate or he is more likely to break his wrist than the brick. If you are selling a house and are still thinking of all of the fond memories it contains you will not get the best deal because your emotions will make you hesitate. It’s probably better to wait until your focus is on your next house before putting the current one on the market.

Believe it or not, many people negotiate with the intention to fail. Watch the words you say or think when a negotiating opportunity arises. If you hear yourself using such phrases as, “I’ll try” or “I’ll do my best” you are defeated before you even begin. These words say that you are playing to lose because you’re giving an excuse for not winning. Instead, replace defeatist scripts with such phrases as, “When I win…” or “When I get the best deal…”

The key principle to keep in mind is: “Always negotiate for the best deal you can for your side. Do not be concerned about fairness as long as the other party can protect his own interests.” Start out with the intention of getting the best deal you can and you will.

Copyright© 2007 by EthnoConnect™. Used with permission.

About the Author(s)

Michael “Soon” Lee, MBA, CSP is president of EthnoConnect™ ( He is the author of Black Belt Negotiating and has negotiated everything from multi-million dollar real estate transactions to major motion picture deals and even discounts on gas for his car. Contact him at (925) 829-9700.