The Win-Win Approach

There are many ways to try to solve differences. One approach is for people to aim to – as far as possible – get win-win solutions. These are more likely to achieve long term success rather than those that are based on win-lose or lose-lose.

Good mediators use their individual strengths to help people find solutions. Many of them, however, focus on the following themes.

This approach may sound idealistic but, providing people are prepared to work together, it is often possible to make it work. It calls for finding and building on common ground, however, and then finding creative solutions to challenges.

This is a positive way forwards. Human beings need to find win-win solutions in order to live and work together. Win-Lose will just lead to more conflict in the future. Win-win is vital for both people and the planet.

Good mediators recognise that most people want similar things in life. They want to be loved, happy and live in peace. They want to feel free, valued and respected. They want to be able to shape their futures and achieve success.

Mediators aim to build on what people have in common and find positive solutions. This can be quite challenging, but the alternative produces lots of losers. Let’s explore how this approach can work in different situations.

The Win-Win Approach

Imagine that you have been asked to help people to resolve differences between them. This could be a married couple that are experiencing difficulties, departments that are blaming each other or some other kinds of warring parties.

The following pages explore some of the steps you can take to help people tackle such challenges.

Making Sure The Conditions Are In
Place For Finding Win-Win Solutions

As mentioned earlier, several conditions must be in place before it is possible to solve deep differences.

People must want to solve the conflict;

People must be prepared to work hard to find, as far as possible, win-wins.

Timing is everything. Many conflicts only get resolved when the parties are exhausted. Couples feel weary from fighting a divorce, terrorists became too old or too tired to fight, employers and strikers are exhausted after an industrial dispute.

People get tired of the negative energy. They are then more willing to sit down and find positive solutions. Before getting involved in any conflict resolution, it is important to ask the following questions.

Are people ready to work together?

Do they really want to solve the problem? Remember, some people are addicted to conflict so they may not want to solve the problem.

Are people prepared to co-operate to find,
as far as possible, a win-win solution?

How high is their motivation to do this on a scale 0 – 10? People need to score at least a 7+ to have a chance of producing success. This also calls for people to be prepared to focus on finding positive solutions rather than scoring points.

Are people ready to focus on how
things can be better in the future? 

This is crucial. Some people want to simply argue about the past and allocate blame. Whilst it may be vital to admit mistakes, the key is to focus on how to create a positive future. Providing people want to solve the problem, it is then possible to move onto the next step.

Clarifying What Each Party Wants
And Building On Common Ground

Start by clarifying what each person or each party wants. One key point:

This includes what people want on a feeling level as well as a factual level.

People may want, for example, to feel valued, respected and able to shape their futures. Later it will be possible to explore to what extent it is possible for people to get the things they want.

Focus on what people have in common rather than the differences. Some people may try to draw you into arguing about the differences, but return to the similarities.

When working with divorcing parents, for example, you will start by focusing on the shared aims they have in common. They may get into arguments, but both will probably say they want the best for their children.

You can then build on this shared aim. There will be lots of time later to explore the differences.

There are many models for helping people to build on common ground. One approach is to encourage people to focus on the Third Side. Here is a short introduction to this approach.

The Third Side

The following section is based on work done by William Ury, who has helped many people to find solutions to conflicts. One approach he uses is to encourage people to focus on what he calls the Third Side.

People can get into difficulties because they sit opposite each other and fight for their own agendas. Each party says the equivalent of: “I am right,” or “Our side is right.” “You are wrong.” These are the First and Second Sides.

People are more likely to achieve a positive outcome if they can sit side-by-side and look together towards a Third Side. This is the greater What and Why.

People often get into arguments about the How, but it is important to focus on the higher purpose. This purpose may be, for example, the children’s welfare after a divorce, the team’s goals or the kind of world we want to pass on to future generations.

When working with divorcing parents, for example, you will start by focusing on the shared aims they have in common. They may get into arguments and say that:

“We have nothing in common.”

They blame each other and say that things would be better if the other person changed. At a certain point, however, you may say something like the following

“You say you have little in common, but do you both want the best for your children?”

They will probably agree that they do, but may disagree on how to achieve those aims. You may then say something like:

“Looking ahead, let’s explore the actual words you would like your children to be saying in 10 years about the way you managed the divorce.

“For example, you may want them to be saying things like: 

‘Mum and Dad behaved in a good way when they went apart. They never used us as pawns or blamed us. 

‘They continued to encourage us and helped us to develop. We now have two homes where we can go and feel at ease.

‘Mum and Dad managed the difficult situation in a positive way.’

Sometimes it is possible to build on what people have in common and agree on a set of goals, a mission or a company’s picture of success. This becomes the Third Side.

Providing people are clear on the agreed overall goals, you can then say things like:

“As far as I understand it, these are the goals to achieve. This is the picture of success.  

“These are the benefits – for the various parties- of achieving the goals.  

“Is this something you want to work towards achieving?”

Mediators recognise that it can take time to get to this point. Bearing this in mind, let’s explore this approach in more depth.

Clarifying The Common
Goals – The Third Side

Imagine that you have been asked to facilitate a discussion about enabling people to work together towards a common goal. The first step is to clarify the potential Third Side.

This is what I was asked to do when invited to work with two departmental heads in a company. The Chief Executive was losing patience with the two teams that were supposed to work together to achieve the company’s goals.

The challenge was that each team focused only on their own targets. When asked about cross-functional work, they blamed each other for failures. This downward spiral affected the service given to customers and the whole company performance.

Bearing this in mind, I met the Chief Executive to clarify the real results to achieve. He was crystal clear on what he wanted them to contribute towards achieving the company’s picture of success.

This called for the respective departments to implement certain strategies to work together, deliver high levels of customer satisfaction and, in the process, contribute to achieving the company’s goals.

The key would be to encourage the departmental heads to focus on these outcomes. They had forgotten to focus on the real What – the things they must deliver to achieve the company’s picture of success. Instead they had fallen into arguments about the How.

This sounds relatively straight-forward. But what happens when you don’t have an authority – such as a CEO – who can let people know about the desired Third Side?

Clarifying What Each Party Wants
and Building On Common Ground

One approach is to meet with each party and clarify what each of them wants. The keys will be:

To clarify their respective aims;  

To then build on common ground.

Each party may want to begin by expressing their feelings about the situation. When appropriate, however, you can invite them to focus on the future.

Good mediators show that they recognise people’s feelings. They then encourage people to channel their energy towards finding solutions. One approach is to invite them to look to the future. It is to ask questions around the following themes.

“Looking ahead, what would you like to happen? What are the real results you want to achieve? What is your picture of success?”

Mediators listen without judgement and play back what they are hearing. If appropriate, however, they sometimes invite people to express their ideas in a positive way.

If one party says that they want others to stop doing something, for example, the mediator invites them to say what they would like the others to do instead.

Towards the end of the conversation the mediator will summarise what they believe to be a party’s goals. They may say something along the following lines.

“As far as I understand it, the goals you would like to achieve are: 

To … 

To …

To … 

“Is that right? Are there any other things that you would like to happen in the future?”

Imagine that you have taken this approach. You will have met with each party and clarified their aims.

The next step is to bring people together and focus on some of the common goals. Some people may try to draw you into arguing about the differences, but return to the similarities.

Keep bringing people back to the What – the real results they want to achieve. This can be challenging, because people often want to get into arguing about the How. When helping people, it can be useful to bear in mind some of the following guidelines.

Building On The Common Ground

The next step is to make sure the parties are prepared to build on the common ground. Sometimes this calls for again explaining it is important to get some quick successes rather than rushing into trying to solve deep differences.

Looking at the work with the two departmental heads, both had worked with me before so they knew the session would be positive. During the meeting it was important to take the following steps.

To create an encouraging environment and explain that I was sure we could pool our resources to find a win-win;

To explain that, if they were open to it, we would explore how they could be supported to combine their talents to achieve the company’s goals;

To put these goals in front of us so that we were literally all on the same side and looking together at the company’s picture of success.

Going deeper, I explained we had been tasked with working together to find solutions. Were they willing to work towards satisfying the customers and achieving the company’s goals?

“Yes, of course we are willing,” was the joint reply, followed by a few caveats.

Taking Steps To Achieve
The Common Goals

Success builds confidence. So it is vital to focus on specific things that people can do to deliver some early wins. This is what happened with the two departmental heads in the company. They made specific action plans that involved them co-operating:

To deliver superb service to the customer; 

To produce success stories that enhanced the reputation of the customer and company; 

To proactively keep the Chief Executive informed about their contribution towards achieving the company’s picture of success.

The two people worked together to get some quick wins. They then developed a pattern of building on what they had in common rather than only focusing on differences. This laid the groundwork for helping them to achieve ongoing success.

Imagine that you want to take this approach in a specific situation. This could be in the family, work or an organisation. As mentioned earlier, however, people must want to find win-win solutions.

Bearing this in mind, you can use the following framework. This involves mapping out: a) the specific things each party wants; b) the common ground; c) the specific thing people can do to build on common ground and get some quick successes.

Managing Differences

You can now move onto the differences. This can be an emotionally loaded area, so you can do your best to maintain a positive atmosphere.

Bearing this in mind, sometimes it can be useful to make clear working contracts. These can be based on the guidelines that mediators know work well in such situations.

Such agreements often cover the following themes. a) the goals to achieve – such as to find a win-win solution; b) the mediator’s role and the other parties’ roles in working to achieve the goals; c) the suggested guidelines people can follow to work to achieve the goals.

Making Clear Contracts

Clear contracting helps to provide a structure that people can follow to channel their energies in a positive way. There are many ways to take this step. One approach to making clear contracts is:

To show respect to people and explain that you will do your best to help them to find solutions; 

To outline some guidelines for working together to find solutions;

To ask if they are willing to follow the guidelines and work together to find solutions.

Mediators sometimes suggest the following guidelines. To have one person speak at a time; to respect each person’s views; to seek to understand what the person is saying before responding; to build on areas of agreement; to solve any conflicts by asking: “How can we, as far as possible, get a win-win?” 

Sometimes the situation may get heated. If appropriate, you can call a time out and give people chance to calm down. Returning to the agreed contract, you can invite people to decide if they want to continue working to find solutions.

Imagine that people have agreed to the working guidelines. You can focus on each difference – each topic – in turn. Maintaining a respectful atmosphere you can aim:

To focus on the first challenge and, whenever possible, phrase this in positive terms;

For example, encourage people to focus on: “How can we live in peace?” rather than: “Why do we keep fighting?”;

To clarify what each person or party wants or would like to happen in the future – this to be on both a feeling and factual level;

To build a picture of the things people want and clarify the real results to achieve – the picture of success; 

To clarify the benefits – for all the various stakeholders – of achieving this picture of success; 

To move on to doing some creative problem solving and aim to find – as far as possible – win-win solutions.

There are many models for finding solutions to challenges. One approach is to use the Three C model. It encourages people to focus on Clarity, Creativity and Concrete Results.


This involves clarifying the real results to achieve – the picture of success.


This involves exploring the possible options for going forwards – the possible choices and consequences – together with the pluses and minuses of each option.  

The next step is to do some creative thinking. Bearing in mind the results to achieve, you can invite people to explore any other possible creative solutions.  

If appropriate, at a certain point you may ask if it is okay for you to share some possible ideas. If so, you may say something like the following.

“One possibility is … 

“Another possibility is …

“Another possibility is …

These ideas are offered in the spirit of being other possibilities rather than telling people what to do. The people will eventually need to commit to an idea that they want to pursue.

Concrete Results 

This involves inviting people to choose the specific route – or combination of routes – they want to pursue. It also involves agreeing on an action plan and getting some quick successes.

Good mediators stay calm during the process. They recognise that some of the differences may be deep-seated. Some may also involve feelings of pain, mistrust or fear.

Mediators encourage people to focus on one topic at a time and get some quick successes. They recognise, however, that many topics are interlinked, but jumping from topic to topic will not work.

A more fruitful approach can be to tackle one topic, get a success and build confidence. It is then possible to explore the links to other topics and again get successes.

Another key point is worth bearing in mind. People may want similar things and agree on the picture of success. But they may have differences about the style that others follow to achieve the goals.

A strong-willed person, for example, may have the ability to inspire or intimidate other people. If they pursue the intimidation strategy, then this can create collateral damage. Such a person can learn to channel their personality, however, rather than change their personality.

If appropriate, it can be useful to ask a person something like the following. 

“Would you be open to adding another option to your repertoire to help you and others to achieve success?”

“Would you be open to adding to another option to your repertoire to help you and others to achieve success?”

If the person says they would, it may be possible to help them to add to their strategies. They are more likely to be open to such additions, however, if they feel these will help both themselves and others to achieve success.

Bearing all these factors in mind, mediators often focus on the following themes during the sessions.

They encourage people to keep following guidelines that we know work for finding solutions;

They encourage people to keep focusing on the future, the real results to achieve and the benefits of achieving this picture of success;

They encourage people to explore the potential choices, the consequences and the options that are most likely to achieve the desired consequences.

They encourage people to avoid using moral judgements – such as them saying that things are good or bad, right or wrong. Such moral judgements do not help. The future is about choices and consequences. Which set of consequences do they want?

They encourage people to focus on the results to achieve – plus the benefits – and keep saying things like:

“As far as I understand, the results you want to achieve are:1) to …; 2) to … ; 3) to … How can we do our best to get these results? How can we, as far as possible, get win-wins?”

Good mediators stay patient. They believe that people can, when they wish, be incredibly creative and find solutions. They also, when appropriate, offer suggestions that can help people to achieve their picture of success.

How do painful problems get solved? Some don’t – people go on fighting. Some get solved because people lose interest – they get tired, accept the differences or move-on with their lives.

There are many ways to tackle challenges. The win-win approach is more likely to achieve lasting success rather than those that are based on win-lose or lose-lose.

Imagine that you have helped people to build on what they have in common. This could be in the family, work or an organisation. You will have also helped them to get some successes.

You may then want to explore how to help people to manage the differences. One approach is to use the following framework. You will, of course, adapt this in your own way to help people to get win-win solutions.

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