People often need to work out their differences. George wants one thing. Sue wants another. Whether they are coworkers or spouses or in some other sort of relationship, eventually they will have to negotiate a solution so that they can move on.
We are all deeply scripted almost from birth in the win/lose scenario. Win/lose and also lose/win solutions may seem appealing in the moment, but Stephen Covey and other writers tell us that they are no good in the long term, because we humans are not independent but interdependent.
Unless we both win, we both lose. Just consider the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a classic puzzle illustrating this point. Our survival, psychologically and otherwise, depends on our ability to cooperate.
The advice certainly sounds sensible. In our relationships, professional and otherwise, it feels right to insist that the ultimate agreement satisfy all parties. Why, then, is this result so tough to achieve?
I believe the answer lies in the problem of existential loneliness. Physically separate from one another, we struggle with isolation and worry about our insignificance. Both are sources of anxiety.
One way we fight back is by trying to enlarge our presence in the world. We build networks of friends, family, and colleagues. We rise in the hierarchy at work. We acquire assets, property, wealth. We groom ourselves for success and recognition.
From childhood onward we look for potential victories. Everyone wants to win even at Monopoly. To be dubbed a loser is anathema. And yet the board game is soon over. If I beat you, the sense that Fate has recognized my specialness is fleeting.
A second reason why we gravitate toward win/lose rather than win/win has to do with time. As John Maynard Keynes observed, in the long run we are all dead. We therefore focus on short-term gains, the stuff we can enjoy in our lifetimes.
Instant gratification feels better than delay and uncertainty. The buck in the hand may be worth far more than two in the bush. In contrast, how important to me is the redistribution of wealth or saving the planet if I am long gone when it happens?
Clearly this problem of a time-limited perspective has great consequences for our motivation to pursue win/win solutions. To combat it we must give greater weight to the matter of how we live than to the badges of success and public opinion.
Whatever we do, our behavioral choices are ours as nothing else is. We enter and leave this world alone, knowing ourselves intimately as no one else can. Our lives constitute our own personal work of art, a form of sculpture that we create and embellish day by day. Viewing them in this light, we have the opportunity to make them embody principles in which we truly believe.
To feel good about ourselves we must be able to look back and know that we stood for something. But what? To answer this question, we must be self-aware. We must tease out our values from our experience, and we must work toward goals that reflect them.
Our values invite us to transcend both the urge toward self-aggrandizement and the illusion of permanence. To ignore our values, or to live without having any, is to fritter away a lifetime.
So let’s say you and I are determined to do right in our own eyes. Rather than rip each other off this week with no thought for our friendship going forward, we want a collaboration that benefits us both. How can we go about creating it, and what obstacles can we expect to encounter?
I have written elsewhere about a simple communication system that invariably helps people understand and accommodate each other. Another, singular tool, however, transforms negotiations by encouraging the participants to reframe the situation in win/win terms. It is a novel way of listening.
Consider how we usually act during an argument. Mostly we sail in, talking a mile a minute, interrupting as necessary, trying to force the other person to agree with us. We try to persuade by lecturing.
We justify our views like mad. We define success as meaning that the other person says, “You are absolutely right,” adding, “I was wrong” or “I didn’t think of that.” Since we all tend to be wedded to our own point of view, persuasion can be difficult or impossible.
In moments of conflict, we feel an immediate urge to take charge, to wipe out any lingering uncertainty and ambiguity. This impulse is as deeply ingrained as the desire to win at any cost. Our anxiety takes over! But there is an alternative.
Rather than plunge in, making our case and explaining the underlying reasons, we can start by exploring the other person’s perspective. We can express interest in the other person’s needs and thoughts. We can ask questions to elicit more information.
As we hear more, we can check our conclusions with the other person for accuracy. We listen before speaking—specifically, we keep listening until the other person feels understood. Only then do we air our own views.
Properly executed, this strategy can bring astonishing results. Sometimes the other person will do exactly as you wish before you have explained your reasoning at all.
Why does this method work? The secret lies in the power of listening. When we listen, we build bridges between us. We strengthen our ties with each other. In connecting we relieve our own isolation more effectively than when we beat each other into momentary submission. What’s more, if I help you, you are very likely to want to return the favor.
If we can tolerate our anxiety and focus on hearing each other, now and in the future, we can negotiate outcomes that benefit everyone. The remedy for the anxiety of existential isolation is not wealth or power but connection.