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Zero-sum vs. Win-Win Thinking

Zero-sum vs. Win-Win Thinking

Author: Marlene Johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand the difference between zero-sum and win-win perspectives on negotiation

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Zero-Sum vs. Win-Win Thinking

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The way we approach conflict can make a huge difference in the outcome and the satisfaction of both parties involved. I'm Marlene, and today I'd like to talk with you about two very different approaches to conflict. The first approach I want to talk about is called zero sum. And distributive bargaining is a form of negotiation based on zero sum.

So what is zero sum? Well, basically it says for every gain, we have a gain here, for every gain there's a corresponding loss. OK, so we've got a gain. And somebody gains, somebody else has to lose. So the approach here to conflict is much like an approach to battle. There's a winner and there's a loser. And I think it's a very common approach to conflict. It's how we typically think about conflict.

Now, there is another approach. That approach is the win-win approach, sometimes known as integrative bargaining. Now, the win-win approach is different because it says there can be one person winning. It doesn't mean the other person has to lose. The other person can also win. OK, so win-win thinking. Now, integrative bargaining differs from distributive bargaining and the zero sum thinking because in integrative bargaining this win-win approach is the approach.

And the focus becomes on meeting each party's interests as fully as possible. So here we're really focusing on interests. Over here we're focusing on positions. So there's a big difference here between focusing on positions, which leads to gain and loss, and interests, where both parties can win. So we really look at integrating the needs of two parties in conflict and seeing what's possible here.

How can we meet the needs of both parties? Let me give you an example. Zero sum thinking is really based on the fact that there is limited resources. There's only so much of something, and if one side's going to get it, the other side's going to lose. And that could be time, it could be money, it could be land, any number of resources. But we see them as limited.

Now, here's an example. It happened in a city out on the west coast. Some years ago they had a surplus in their budget. And there were two groups vying for these funds, which they saw as limited resources, only so much money. And there was a coalition of women's groups that wanted the money to update and redo the daycare centers. They had very inadequate daycare centers facilities in the city. And there were a number of people who supported that cause.

Then the other group were the firefighters. And there were also some homeowners on the side of the firefighters. They wanted the money to upgrade their firefighting equipment, because not only would that protect homes better, but it would also lower insurance rates. So it was a battle back and forth in terms of positions. Who is going to get this money? So they came into a conflict resolution process and moved away from positions, moved away from this zero sum way of thinking in terms of one group's going to win this and one group's going to lose, and began to focus on their interests.

They did come up with a final solution where some of the money was used-- very creative solution, here-- some of the money was used to convert the old fire stations into daycare centers. And doing this attracted some state and federal funding to help operate the day-cares. Then the rest of the money, which was the majority of the money, was used to convert the old fire stations-- they built new fire stations with the money, excuse me. They converted the old fire stations into daycare. And with the new money they built three new fire stations.

And what happened after they built the fire stations is they were able to raise the city's fire rating from double A to triple A, and insurance rates went down and property values went up. So it was a situation where people won on all sides, not only the firefighters, the daycare, but homeowners. And it is an example. I think it's a great example of what can happen when you focus on the interests and really look at how you could integrate those interests, think creatively, and come up with solutions that can really meet the needs of both sides.

So once again, two totally different approaches for conflict. One is zero sum distributive bargaining. The other is the win-win approach, or integrative bargaining. And the conflict resolution process is based on that win-win approach. It's based on bringing parties in conflict together and having them look at this conflict as a problem that they can jointly solve instead of a battle they have to fight. So thank you for joining me, and I look forward to next time.

  • Zero-Sum Thinking

    An approach to negotiation or conflict resolution that assumes any gain for one party implies a corresponding loss for the other party.

  • Win-Win Thinking

    An approach to conflict resolution that sees the objective of a successful solution as meeting each party's interests as fully as possible, to the point of satisfaction with the solution.

  • Integrative Bargaining

    A form of negotiation based on win-win thinking.

  • Distributive Bargaining

    A form of negotiation based on zero-sum thinking.