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In our experience, there is no win-win in difficult negotiations. In difficult negotiations, there is a clash of interests. In this conflict, neither side can get their way. However, a halfway house is often a win for both parties on the surface only.

In addition to “strategic partnership”, Win-Win is one of the most overused concepts in the field of negotiations. There is no way for both sides to win in a difficult negotiation, the aim is rather to reach an agreement despite opposing demands. Many negotiators wish to reach an agreement in which both sides win so that a long-term partnership is established and both parties “can still look each other in the eye next time”.

But what does Win-Win actually mean? The concept was researched at Harvard University from 1970 to 1980. Scientists tested negotiation methods and looked for a option that satisfies both sides and developed a rational method of negotiating: “Win-win” is therefore also known as the “Harvard Concept”. But their premise was based on the absence of fundamental conflicts of interest between the negotiating parties - this situation is a precondition in order for all involved actors to emerge victorious from the negotiation. Granted, if both negotiating partners have a similar interest, negotiating is not that difficult!

Important to know: In difficult negotiations it is impossible for both sides to “win”.
The objective is to reach an agreement. Win-Win does not exist.
In difficult negotiations, divergent interests are the rule. Win-Win therefore only works for me if I keep open several options while leaving my counterpart in the belief that it is they who have the choice. In other words: No matter what I offer, I always win. Negotiations get really interesting when both sides are alert and fully aware of their different interests - then it becomes a question of power.

The power of negotiation is on your side if you know how to solve conflicts strategically and consistently, but not if you believe in a Win-Win agreement and hope that the other side will act reasonably. Because they will not! A conflict is always based on different interests and the assumption that your own interests are right. The conclusion therefore often is that the opposite side’s interests are wrong. This may sound simplistic but is the cause of a raftof problems in difficult negotiations. The evaluation of one’s own interests as “right” and those of the opposing interests as “wrong” often creates a conflict that is difficult to solve.

Leave aside any assessments of “right” or “wrong”

You should be able to act in a negotiation. If you cannot act, you cannot negotiate and will achieve no result. To be able to act, you should abandon concepts like “right” and “wrong”. Socrates already distinguished between truth and certainty. He pointed out that while many people are certain about many things, they are unable to recognize things as they really are.

Based on the Socrates’ insight, today we distinguish two sets of concepts: semantic characteristics and psychological states. In a “Win-Win” negotiation it is not possible find a solution in terms of semantic characteristics. It is impossible for both parties to actually win (in terms of truth, knowledge and reality). It is possible, however, that both sides believe they can win or have won (in terms of certainty and opinion).

You have closed a deal and things went too smoothly. You do not know how much more the buyer might have been willing to pay. This uncertainty bothers you, and you might be annoyed that you offered such a low price and accepted so swiftly. Where does the truth lie? You cannot say for certain whether or not you have concluded a truly good deal. You don’t know if you could have obtained a higher price.

There are many uncertainties in every negotiation. There are many elements we cannot control, analyze or prepare for to the smallest detail. We are driven by emotions and tend to lose rational control, especially in difficult situations.

Important to know: There is no way of determining the truth in a negotiation. We should therefore stop looking for it and focus on getting certainty.

We therefore recommend abandoning the search for truth in negotiations and focusing on certainty instead – by that we mean your negotiating partner’s certainty. Try to find out why your negotiating partner is certain that they are entitled to their position, analyze their opinions and their view of reality.

Normally, both parties believe to be right. This right is then communicated as a truth. Those who think they are right insist on their position and communicate it very clearly to the outside world. Both parties communicate their own point of view to the press and their employees and substantiate it with arguments. However, arguments belong to the area of certainty, not truth. 

Nobody can go through all eventualities before or during a negotiation. Nobody knows where winning or losing truly begins. But everyone can set a limit where they would reach an agreement or break off. These are limits in the sense of certainty, not truth, because we can only believe that there is a limit at some point, but we cannot actually know it. It is therefore not the goal of a negotiation to find an actual limit, but to find limits in the sense of certainty.