“Negotiation is all about getting a win/win” – This is a suggested approach I frequently hear and a claim found in many negotiation textbooks. But is a ‘win/win’ really possible, and if so, is it desirable? The answer is it all depends. It depends upon the circumstances of the negotiation, your relative position and what you want to get out of the negotiation beyond the deal itself.

A win/win is an agreed outcome where both parties walk away with the optimum value or benefit balanced against the other party also securing the optimum value or benefit. Sounds great but does such a thing ever exist? In fact it does, but it is rare and a true win/win means both parties are concerned as much for their opponent as they are for themselves.

A win/win can be found in close personal relationships, ones where we care about the other party long-term. A mother negotiating with her teenage daughter about staying out late may well be seeking a win/win. The teenager may also be seeking a win/win or may have a different agenda.

Such a concern for the opponent is rare in business relationships except where those relationships have a close, long-term dimension also. Here, business relationships are founded upon relationships between individuals so win/win is in fact a product of genuine close relationships, where parties hold concern for the other beyond the deal itself. This means that in the day-to-day world of business, the conditions where a win/win is possible are quite limited. So, what is going on the rest of the time?

The art of a good negotiator is to make the other party feel they are securing a win/win so they walk away happy. Here, negotiation and selling principles collide; we are in fact selling the deal and making the other party feel good about it. In reality, ‘win’ is not necessarily a real position, it is a perception. Therefore, if we can create the perception of a win in our opponent we can in turn secure the outcome we need.

This is where, in the world of negotiation, tactics, cleverly spoken words, body language and a good bit of acting can help create an illusion. It feels like a win/win, but it is actually a big win/little win. Both parties have agreed to an outcome and both walk away feeling like they have achieved a good deal but the reality is, with no personal desire to maintain a relationship beyond the deal or little obligation to ensure the other party does well out of the deal, parties will seek to maximize their positions.

Here, the game is on, using a variety of tactics and approaches to claim as much value from the other as possible, all creating the illusion that they are getting a great deal. Is this a bad thing? It might be for the teenage daughter negotiating with her mother as such a short-term view could be damaging to the relationship long-term. But, for a business negotiating with another business, it is precisely the approach we need to maximize our position and win.

There is, however, one exception here and one that has come to the fore in very recent years. Today, like never before, the corporate social responsibility agenda can shape certain negotiations. If we are negotiating to buy a commodity from a third world provider, we may have the power and skills to effect an incredible WIN/win in our favour. However, this might not be the best and most sustainable outcome and so we might choose to work towards a true win/win, despite the absence of any personal relationship.

So, despite the much misused phrase, a win/win is real but only exists where there is a personal relationship that we care about, with a long-term dimension or where we identify the need to ensure our actions are sustainable. For everything else, a win/win is an illusion and the real game is maximizing our win, but making them feel good about it.

By Jonathan O’Brien, the architect of the Red Sheet Negotiation methodology