Conflict Resolution: When Winning Isn’t Everything

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“Win” is a self important, uninvited guest in conflict resolution. While rudeness to words is never appropriate, it is entirely reasonable to show “win” the door.

Defining a win is easy in sports, the teams agree to the definition before the game. In mediation, there is no shared meaning of SEG image 2“win”.

An essentialist view of language begs us to accept that the definition of the word win captures the essence of the word’s meaning in a universal sense. Popular culture embraces the essentialist view with book titles containing phrases such as Win-win, How to Win and Secrets of Winning, just to name a few. We accept that we know what the titles refer to and aspire to “win”.

The desire to “win” and acceptance of the essentialist’s view of the word is fueled by loss aversion, a term familiar to those who have read Daniel Kahneman’s works.

Does “win” fit into a tidy taxonomy?

Sports teams use scorekeepers. The tally after a game or match determines the winner.

What qualifies as a “win” in an academic test? Is any score above 90 a win? If the class material was very difficult, would a score above 80 be considered a win?

How do we determine a “win” in a divorce? In financial terms? Is finally escaping abuse in a marriage, in and of itself a “win”? Does a deadbeat spouse become a winner by avoiding child support for years? If the answer depends on who you ask, how can we claim an essential definition of win?

In politics, declaring and thus defining a “win” has been elevated to an art form.
Admitting loss, equally difficult to define, is rarely done in politics with the exception of an election in which a score is kept.

When winning is defined for a contest the term has relevance and meaning for that event or occurrence.

Outside the context of contests, “win” is an elusive friend that many claim to know, but few can identify in a line-up.

A non-essentialist views a complete, comprehensive definition of the word win as unnecessary and potentially harmful, except in cases such as a contest, for which the definition is necessary for that specific event.

In conflict resolution, the pre-game drive to “win” is unnecessary and harmful to the process. When we plan and strategize to “win” in a mediation or a trial, but define or spin the “win” to meet our criteria after the fact, win’s essence and value evaporates.

Conflict resolution is a process. It has a beginning, an end and a post script. Understanding the process and assisting others to navigate it has value. Determining a winner does not.