Zero Sum Game – We All Win

The term Zero Sum game comes from game and economic theory in which is a each participant’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participants. If the total gains of the participants are added up and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. In the world of conflict mediation it has been borrowed to add weight to the notion of a “win-win” solution.

In this short article we will look at some of the practical and philosophical implications of zero-sum or win-win thinking and how this relates to holding difficult conversations and building or maintaining highly successful relationships, whether in the workplace or in our personal lives. I am going to start by setting out three positions for the outcome and process of holding difficult conversations.

Three Positions

Win-Lose or Non-Zero Sum

In win-lose situations one person comes out on top and the other loses out. Simple examples include robbery, extortion or situations where one person enters into a transaction with someone in a much less powerful position.

Win-Win or Zero Sum

In this case the value of exchange between the parties are equal. For example in shopping scenarios, there is an agreement by those who are selling and those who are buying and the exchange is mutually satisfactory or when feuding colleagues manage to come to an agreement which suits them both.

Extended Value – More Than Win-Win

A third position with a view to providing a pathway to those interested in pushing the value of holding difficult conversations beyond a neutral and successful termination of a conflict. Extended value means looking at solutions that are even greater than the successful achievement of planned outcomes of both parties. For example when conflict between teams leads to a detailed discussion of each others’ roles and functions leaving to opportunities being spotted for further efficiencies.

Things to remember

Applying this thinking in our everyday contact with other people, we may wish to remember the following.

  • Perceptions are everything

The value we place on what we exchange is crucial to achievement a successful outcome. A cup of water may be highly valued to a de-hydrated man but non at all if we are sitting in our kitchen with the taps to hand. If I exchange a service or favour with my neighbour – let’s say he mends my bathroom tap as an apology for his teenage son damaging my car with his bike – how I value the service exchanged is pretty much up to me. If I am qualified and competent plumber I may not value his service as much as if I was inept in that department. If the damage to my car is severe I may feel that this is insufficient. We decide the value of the outcome.

  • Politics of Win-win

Having said that the individuals themselves decide the value of exchanges, there is often a political (small p) context to the conversation, often relating the power relationship between the parties. The often sad and demeaning role of the sex-worker is characterized by the exchange of money from the more affluent punter to the frequently drug dependent sex worker. On the surface money is exchanged and a service offered, apparently, willingly. However the inequality of power positions of the parties leave an uncomfortable result.

  • We Are All Intertwined

In the context of family and friends, the enmeshed nature of our relationships is easy to see and to value. We do things for each other, as we know that our lives will benefit as a result. If we see work as a social context, we can see the benefit of supporting colleagues. In the context of holding difficult conversations, we may be happy to consider the other persons point of view.

Practical Strategies

  1. Win-win is in the planning

In the first session of this course “What Do You Really Want” we looked at how we might formulate our objectives. If we are interested in other people’s value, I suggest that we should consciously reflect on what they need at the planning stage. We can plan what we want and also what may be good for the other party in the discussion. If we are bartering we may wish to be careful of what we disclose, however in many situations anticipating what the other party might want can be powerful in building better relationships.

  1. Consider the Three Positions as a continuum

Whilst we may always wish to seek win-win solutions, there may be situations where this is simply not possible. Many of you reading this article will work in beleaguered public sector organisations where denying members of the public a service is a too often an occurrence as austerity bites. How can we possibly get a win-win out of a “no”? In such situations we need to do the best we can to respond to the needs of the individuals we are saying no to – their need for transparency, fairness and to have their situation recognised may seem like a poor substitute for delivering a service, however they are better than the alternative.

  1. Look out for that which benefits others

Simply put, have on your radar what benefits the people you are dealing with. An of course you can ask!

  1. Carry the principle

There are probably many values that we carry with us that we are not always able to express, although we would wish to do so. The win-win principle can slip into your wallet or purse next to kindness and fairness. If you prefer you may consider it as a further convenient belief.

What benefits others, benefits me

Reflective Exercise

  1. Consider the person with whom you are having the most difficult conversations currently. What would help them develop agreement with you?

  2. Think of the last time you reached an agreement. What could you and the other party done to achieve “Extended Value”?


Phil Jones, April 2017


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