In Focus:  Win-Win Myths

If you never heard of the concept of win-win, you’re either eight years old, or you must have spent the past quarter-century living in a desert. Roger Fisher and William Ury’s Getting to YES, one of the best-selling business books of all time, originally defined this principled approach to negotiating, now taught by trainers all over the world. “Negotiate agreement without giving in,” “Focus on interests, not positions,” “Make sure both sides feel good about the deal,” “Explore creative options that maximize the value for everyone” – the key messages of this negotiation philosophy appeal to universal values of fairness and mutual respect.

If only it worked better…

To be sure, some of the underlying principles of win-win are very powerful. We all are more effective when we focus on our counter- parts’ intentions (what they really want) instead of their positions (what they say they want). Similarly, the idea of inventing options for mutual gain, that is, leveraging creativity to introduce aspects into the negotiation that both sides benefit from but neither had considered, proved hugely beneficial to the field.

Alas, win-win has its limitations. What most people remember about the concept are rules such as “Make sure you both win,” “Give a little, take a little”, or “Remember you’re negotiating the deal and the relationship.” While all of these rules have their place, none of them are particularly helpful when negotiating with someone who does not focus on win-win. Even when both sides share the spirit, each may be disappointed with the negotiation outcomes, feeling they “left something on the table” – a frustra- ting, yet frequent experience in the United States and one that is even more common when doing business around the globe.

Experienced international negotiators consider the influence of two aspects that Fisher and Ury largely seemed to ignore:


In the U.S., a highly competitive culture, many negotiators secret- ly admit that “I want my counterpart to win – but I want to win more!” Consequently, they are more assertive and less coopera- tive, often seeing the other side’s gain as their own loss. Such a competitive spirit, which does not align well with the “joint problem solving” philosophy of win-win, is common also in cultures like Brazil, China, Russia, South Korea, and many others. Appeals to a competitive negotiator’s sense of fairness probably fall on deaf ears: most see nothing wrong with one-sided negotiation out- comes, taking them only as evidence of superior negotiation skills.

When dealing with a competitive counterpart, negotiators need to decide when to employ a win-win approach and when to take a firmer stance, at the risk of appearing less collaborative. In certain situations within negotiations, building “counter-pressure,” while continuing to focus on intentions and look for creative options, may be the most effective strategy.

The ‘Joy of the Game’

Most businesspeople in Western countries like the U.S., Canada, Britain, France, Germany, or the Nordics, do not really enjoy negotiating. They view negotiations a necessary but rather cumbersome step in the process of doing business and strive to complete them as quickly and effectively as possible.

In contrast, members of many other cultures, such as Arabs, most Latin Americans, or many Asians see negotiating as a game that they play skillfully and enjoy profoundly. Though the object of this game is no less serious to them, they view extended negotiations as opportunities to have fun, learn more about the other side and build the necessary relationships. They tend to take their time and draw out negotiations “needlessly,” at least in the eyes of a rushed foreigner, haggling endlessly before con- sidering realistic options. Making matters worse, the process of exchanging information in these regions and countries may include elements, such as misinformation, deceit, or outright lies, that others view as unacceptable ‘bad-faith negotiating.’

Conducting negotiations across cultural borders with a strict expectation that both sides follow win-win principles is little more than naÔve and can put deals in jeopardy. Great negotiators understand win-win principles and leverage them where appro- priate, but they remain flexible, adjusting negotiation styles and tactics as required to achieve the best possible results.

This article is also available in PDF format  (requires Adobe Reader ).

Book Of The Month
Start with NO


A contrarian model to main- stream win-win negotiation strategies, presenting some effective -and some rather dangerous- approaches.

(click title for full book review)


Web Site Of The Month
WTO Members and Observers


A useful compilation of infor- mation about trade statistics, commitments, disputes, and trade policy reviews for all member countries of the World Trade Organization.

(click title to visit this web site)


Quote Of The Month

A lie gets halfway around
the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on

Winston Churchill


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Global Business Practices:
Ten Tips for Doing Business in the UAE
(United Arab Emirates)

  • The UAE is the federation of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain.
  • With about 2.2 males per female, this country has the highest gender imbalance in the world - but that aspect is not a good conversation topic.
  • Always keep in mind that this is an Islamic country. Being disrespectful of the religion could be disastrous.
  • To Arab standards, Abu Dhabi and especially Dubai are much more progressive and liberal than the other Emirates.
  • Women may still find it difficult to conduct business in the UAE. It may be best to work "through" a male colleague.
  • Punctuality is crucial with people who outrank you. Be prepared for them to keep you waiting, though.
  • Negotiations may take substantial time. Spend significant effort upfront to build strong relationships.
  • Do not openly show anger. Subtle hints, such as remaining silent, are more appropriate and effective.
  • Always use your right hand to greet others or to hand them things. The left hand is considered dirty by most Muslims.
  • With the exception of Sharjah und unlike in Saudi Arabia, Alcohol is legal and widely available in the Emirates.

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