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Win Lose Negotiation Case Study

Brad Spangler

January 2013

Original Publication September 2003, updated January 2013 by Heidi Burgess

The Basics

Morton Deutsch continues his discussion of what makes people be competitive or cooperative, and describes the results of those choices.

Win-win, win-lose, and lose-lose are game theory terms that refer to the possible outcomes of a game or dispute involving two sides, and more importantly, how each side perceives their outcome relative to their standing before the game. For example, a "win" results when the outcome of a negotiation is better than expected, a "loss" when the outcome is worse than expected. Two people may receive the same outcome in measurable terms, say $10, but for one side that may be a loss, while for the other it is a win. In other words, expectations determine one's perception of any given result.

Win-win outcomes occur when each side of a dispute feels they have won. Since both sides benefit from such a scenario, any resolutions to the conflict are likely to be accepted voluntarily. The process of integrative bargaining aims to achieve, through cooperation, win-win outcomes.

Win-lose situations result when only one side perceives the outcome as positive. Thus, win-lose outcomes are less likely to be accepted voluntarily. Distributive bargaining processes, based on a principle of competition between participants, are more likely than integrative bargaining to end in win-lose outcomes--or they may result in a situation where each side gets part of what he or she wanted, but not as much as they might have gotten if they had used integrative bargaining.

Lose-lose means that all parties end up being worse off. An example of this would be a budget-cutting negotiation in which all parties lose money.  The intractable budget debates in Congress in 2012-13 are example of lose-lose situations.  Cuts are essential--the question is where they will be made and who will be hurt.   In some lose-lose situations, all parties understand that losses are unavoidable and that they will be evenly distributed. In such situations, lose-lose outcomes can be preferable to win-lose outcomes because the distribution is at least considered to be fair.[1]

Jay Rothman, President of the ARIA Group, Inc., describes the use of action evaluation to find non-litigious ways, i.e. win-win, of dealing with racial profiling problems in Cincinnati. In particular, he highlights efforts to engage young people.

In other situations, though, lose-lose outcomes occur when win-win outcomes might have been possible. The classic example of this is called the prisoner's 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).

This situation occurs fairly often, as win-win outcomes can only be identified through cooperative (or integrative) bargaining, and are likely to be overlooked if negotiations take a competitive distributive) stance.

The key thing to remember is that any negotiation may be reframed (placed in a new context) so that expectations are lowered. In the prisoner's dilemma, for example, if both prisoners are able to perceive the reduced sentence as a win rather than a loss, then the outcome is a win-win situation. Thus, with lowered expectations, it may be possible for negotiators to craft win-win solutions out of a potentially lose-lose situation. However, this requires that the parties sacrifice their original demands for lesser ones.

[1] The above definitions were drawn from: Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess, Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution  (Denver: ABC-CLIO, 1997), 306-307, 309-310. <>.

Use the following to cite this article:
Spangler, Brad. "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 <>.

Additional Resources

OTPIC Officially Retired

As of December 2, 2005, the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict (OTPIC) has been officially retired, and is no longer open to new registrations.

The successor to OTPIC is a course called Dealing Constructively with Intractable Conflicts (DCIC). The new curriculum is built around one of our major projects, Beyond Intractability, and offers a much more extensive and informative set of learning materials than that available through OTPIC.

International Online Training Program On Intractable Conflict

Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, USA


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Negotiation is the fundamental form of dispute resolution. In simplest terms, it involves a discussion between two or more disputants who are trying to work out a solution to their dispute. It may even be done in advance, to avoid disputes. For example, when we discuss simple life choices with family members--who does which chores, what family activities are planned for when--we are negotiating. When we bargain over the price of a product or service, we are negotiating. In order to live or work effectively with others, good negotiation skills are critical.

Negotiation can take several forms. Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton's best-selling book, Getting to Yes (1991), highlights three forms of negotiation or bargaining: hard, soft, and principled. Hard bargaining is adversarial--you assume that your opponent is your enemy and the only way you can win is if he or she loses. So you bargain in a very aggressive, competitive way. Soft bargaining is just the opposite. Your relationship with your opponent is so important that you concede much more easily than you should. You get taken advantage of in your effort to please, and while agreement is reached easily, it is seldom a wise one.

Fisher, Ury, and Patton propose a third alternative, which they call "principled negotiation." This approach calls for negotiators to use five fundamental principles to negotiate effectively with each other instead of against each other. These are: 1) separate the people from the problem, 2) negotiate about interests, not positions, 3) invent options for mutual gain, 4) insist on objective decision criteria, and 5) know your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement). (For more information on principled negotiation, click here.)

Critics of principled negotiation argue that it only works in situations in which win-win outcomes are possible. In unavoidable win-lose conflicts, some critics argue, the techniques of distributive bargaining are superior. Distributive bargaining starts with the assumption that there is only a limited amount of "stuff" to go around, and that the more that one side gets, the less the other side will be able to have. This is inherently a competitive situation, which calls for competitive negotiating tactics. (For more information about competitive negotiating tactics, click here.)

While negotiation is the "pure" form of bargaining, it can be enhanced in many ways. Mediation, for example, is assisted negotiation, as is consensus-building. Many other forms of "alternative dispute resolution" (a term developed in the U.S. to refer to alternatives to litigation) are also simply varieties of negotiation.


Links to Examples of Negotiating Processes:

Dean Pruitt--Strategic Choice in Negotiation
Pruitt discusses four basic negotiation strategies--problem solving, contending, yielding , and inaction, and the way in which each of these affects the   negotiation's outcome.
Nancy J. Manring--Dispute System Design and the U.S. Forest System
This article explains how the U.S. Forest Service designed and implemented a dispute management system of deal constructively with both internal and external conflicts involving forest management issues.
Susan L. Carpenter and W.J.D. Kennedy--Handling the Human Side of the Negotiation Process
This article outlines some of the problems that can arise during negotiation and and suggests ways to get beyond them.
Timothy D. Sisk--The Violence-Negotiation Nexus: South Africa in Transition and the Politics of Uncertainty
Sisk outlines the interplay between negotiation and violence during the South African Transition.
Gail Bingham, Aaron Wolf, and Tom Wohlgenant--Resolving Water Disputes: Conflict and Cooperation
This article examines different negotiation strategies that can be used to address environmental, especially water, disputes.
Raymond Cohen--Negotiating Across Cultures: Communication Obstacles in International Diplomacy
Cohen examines the effects of cultural differences on international negotiations and diplomacy.

Links to Outside Information on Negotiation:

International Negotiation Journal
This is a relatively new, but excellent journal on negotiation processes.  While none of the articles is available in full text online, abstracts of all of the articles are available at this site.
US Institute of Peace -- "Negotiation and International Mediation" in Sudan: Ending the War, Moving Talks Forward
Rita J. Kummer - Conflict Resolution Theory and its Application in Legislative Negotiations on Moral Issues: a Case Study of the Civil Rights Acts of 1990 and 1991
This paper explores the applicability of integrative conflict resolution theory and practice to the American legislative process in the case of moral conflicts. The focus is on the American civil rights debate in the 1990s.
Links to Related Processes:
Official (Track I) Diplomacy
Identifying Ripe Times for Negotiation
Identifying and Pursuing Negotiable Sub-Issues
Negotiation Loop Backs
Principled Negotiation
Consensus Building
Getting People to the Table
Soft Bargaining
Hard Bargaining
Negotiation Skill Development
Distributive Bargaining

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