The Difficulty of Achieving a Win-Win Negotiation Outcome

Hoping for a win-win situation? Let the other side know.

By — on / Win-Win Negotiations


In negotiation, win-win conflict resolution can be elusive. But simply advertising the fact that you’re looking for a win-win situation may be half the battle.

Back on April 2, 2015 Iran reached a preliminary agreement with the United States and five other nations—Russia, China, France, Germany, and Great Britain—to curtail its uranium enrichment program in exchange for loosened economic sanctions.

The deal had been in the making since 2013, when Iran promised to freeze much of its nuclear activity and to allow international inspectors to monitor its progress. The two sides missed numerous deadlines to reach a more specific and comprehensive deal that would allow their plan to move forward. In particular, the United States and Iran were at odds over how long restrictions on Iran’s enrichment activities should remain in place. For over a year, a deal seemed elusive.

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A New Breakthrough

On February 11, 2015, a much-needed breakthrough seemed to come when Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, launched an upcoming round of talks by declaring that Iran’s goal in the negotiations was not a win-lose negotiation but a deal that would benefit both sides, according to Reuters news service.

“What we are after in the negotiations is to reach a win-win mutual understanding,” Rouhani said in a speech. From his point of view, such an agreement would be one in which Iran would pursue peaceful nuclear energy with transparency in exchange for the removal of what he called “wrong, inhumane, and illegal” sanctions against Iran.

Defending the president’s strategy to conservative hardliners, Iran’s highest authority, clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said he too could support a collaborative deal. Rouhani was quick to highlight Khamenei’s support when revealing his approach in a speech.

Message Received, Loud and Clear

Rouhani’s public statement championing a very Western concept—a “win-win”—appeared intended to signal to his counterparts that he was indeed ready to make a deal.

A framework appeared to take shape during the round of negotiations between the United States and Iran in late February. “We made progress,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters as the talks in Geneva, Switzerland concluded. Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the two sides reached “a better understanding” at the negotiating table, the New York Times reports.

At issue was the length of restrictions to be placed on Iran’s enrichment. The United States sought a 15-year deal; Iran wanted less than 10 years. The White House faces an uphill battle to convince the Republican-controlled Congress to agree to roll back sanctions against Iran.

Meanwhile, Iran faced pressure from conservatives not to concede too many years to the West.

Rather than simply splitting the difference, the parties hit upon a tradeoff: a 10-year regime of strict controls that could be eased over the following five years if Iran complied with the terms of the deal. The tradeoff was a collaborative move that could also help each side sell the agreement back at home: The Iranians could tell hardliners they had a 10-year deal, and the Americans could tell Congress they had a 15-year deal.

Learning From a Win-Win Perspective

The negotiations offer three lessons to negotiators seeking win-win conflict resolution:

1. Consider explicitly conveying your desire to work toward an agreement. Because public statements commit you to follow through (or be branded a liar), they can send a powerful signal.

2. Program on Negotiation experts James K. Sebenius and David Lax note that setting up a good deal is at least as important as the interpersonal tactics you use at the table. Set up a win-win negotiation strategy by asking influential supporters to make your case back home.

3. As you work on value creation, focus on terms you can sell to your constituents. The best deals lessen the odds of rejection by outside parties.

Have you ever achieved a win-win outcome in negotiation? What hurdles did you face?

Related Win-Win Negotiations Post: Win-Win Negotiations: Trapped in a Competitive Cycle? Learn from Congress’s Mistakes

Claim your FREE copy: Win-Win or Hardball

Discover how to handle complicated, high-level business negotiations in this free report, Win-Win or Hardball: Learn Top Strategies from Sports Contract Negotiations, from Harvard Law School.

Originally published in 2015.

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