Win-Lose To Win-Win

Win-Lose To Win-Win

When you have a disagreement with your spouse, partner or friend over something you want, does it feel like one of you has to win and the other has to lose?

Given that your relationship is an important part of these scenarios, even a win-lose is a lose-lose because it puts a strain on your relationship. It’s most apparent in a big disagreement, but the little ones add up, too.

So how do you make sure your disagreements end up as win-wins when you each want different things?

It all boils down to how you define a win.

You probably first learned about winning when you were a child. A child usually has very short term goals. Being concrete thinkers, they want a specific thing or an experience, and they want it now! It’s so black & white that if that one thing doesn’t happen, it can feel like a “lose.” The basic definition goes like this: “win = getting what I want now.” (Read SAY WHAT YOU SEE for Parents and Teachers if you want to know how to turn any moment with a child into a win-win!)

Luckily, your adult brain can do “gray,” but only after you realize you are seeing something as black & white. The child’s black & white win is “getting what I want now,” where a specific, short-term want defines the win.

A quick way to wake up from the child’s black & white world of specific, short-term wants is to ask yourself, “Is there really only one thing I want?”

At any given moment, you actually want a lot of things, some are short-term, others long-term. Gray is where they overlap or conflict. The ability to say which “want” defines a win is one of the gifts of maturity.

For example, when my girls were little, even though I wanted to sleep late in the mornings (short-term want), I wanted them to do well in school (long-term want) which meant I had to get up early to get them there. Black & white would’ve meant I lost every morning, however, gray allowed me to see getting up each day as part of the win of achieving my long-term goal. Your ability to do gray allows you to define the win any way you want.

To show how you can use this to reach an agreement with someone else, take the example of a couple where one wants to eat dinner at home and the other wants to go out. Black & white looks like you will either stay home or go out, so one of you will “win = get what you want” and the other will lose, right?

Start with gray. Gray helps each of you figure out which want will define the win.

The wants behind spouse 1’s desire to stay home could be: rest, relaxation, ease, comfort, familiarity, thrift, quiet evening together…all things that help you be your best self and emotionally available for your spouse in the short term. In the long term, the want or intention here could easily be a loving relationship.

The wants behind spouse 2’s desire to go out could be: rest (no cooking or dishes), relaxation, ease, comfort, adventure, fun evening together…again, all things that help you be your best self and emotionally available for your spouse in the short term. In the long term, the want or intention here could also easily be a loving relationship.

You can probably see where this is going. Gray (not resentful compromise) is where you find the win-win, because gray is where you will find agreement about what you want.

Win-wins can be found most easily by starting from the points of agreement. To get there quickly, just start with the longest-term intention. This is generally your highest priority and solid point of agreement. It’s the want that matters most.

The agreement process for our example could look like this:

1. Longest-term intention:  A loving relationship. First level of agreement reached = win-wina (This becomes your touchstone and guide for the rest of the agreement process.)

2. Next longest-term want: An evening that helps you be your best self and emotionally available for your spouse. Second level of agreement reached = win-wina

3. Short-term wants: rest, relaxation, ease, comfort, evening together. Third level of agreement reached = win-wina

When you start from the highest points of agreement – your intentions – you get to experience the agreement process as a series of win-wins that help you stay clear about who each of you is. In this example, did you notice how neither party is trying to destroy the relationship, cut the other one off emotionally, or ruin the evening? These are common complaints from couples who start from the other end of the process, beginning with their specific, short-term points of disagreement.

When you are clear that you are working with someone with similar intentions, it’s much easier to validate their different wants without feeling like what you want is threatened. In our example, either party could start:

SWYS (description): “We both want to spend the evening together AND one of us wants familiarity and a low-cost, quiet evening, AND the other wants adventure and fun.”


SWYS Spouse 1 (validation of Spouse 2): “Adventure and fun make sense when you feel like you haven’t been challenged enough or just want to get away and see and do new things…”


SWYS Spouse 2 (validation of Spouse 1): “Familiarity and a low-cost, quiet evening make sense after you’ve had a series of big challenges, been away a lot and feel pressured about earning money…”


CAN DO (either party): “Must be something we CAN DO to spend the evening together in a way that will strengthen our relationship (highest intention).”

New possibilities show up when you focus on your highest mutual intentions. For example, you can probably come up with a number of ways to have familiarity and a low-cost, quiet dinner out, or adventure and fun at home. Add “now” and “later” into the mix and you will be able to come up with some combination that feels right for you both.

As long as your solution strengthens your relationship, it’s a win because you said so! Final agreement = win-wina



  1. This is lovely, a really easy-to-read summary of the paradigm shift from win-lose to win-win, one that I too adore. Thanks for making it so simple.


  2. Gauri, thanks for your comment! Simple is what I do.

    I hot-linked your blog to make it easy for others to find you. Your posts contain wonderful personal examples of parenting without rewards or punishment and what sounds to me like a balanced take on AP parenting. Too good to miss!

    • Aww. Thanks. What a great endorsement!!


  3. Ali |

    I’ve been talking with my husband recently about us working on seeing the positive intent behind each other’s wants / actions / words, instead of going straight to the knee-jerk negative reaction that often occurs. This post has helped me clarify my intentions and find ways of resolving disputes in a softer, more loving way. Your work is helping me peel away the layers of complication that cloak my interactions with my children and my husband and get to the truth underneath – I am very grateful!!

    • Thank you so much for sharing your comment. Your commitment to get to the simple truth and create loving interactions is guiding your way. So glad to be of help!

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