Covey #4 – think win/win

Covey #4 – think win/win

“Win/Win is a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions. Win/Win means that agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial, mutually satisfying. With a Win/Win solution, all parties feel good about the decision and feel committed to the action plan. Win/Win sees life as a cooperative, not a competitive arena.” (Covey)

This blog describes the different frames we can choose in our negotiations with others. The frame that is chosen influences the way we negotiate with others when both parties desire different outcomes or routes and is thus highly important.

Covey talks in terms of frameworks, not of action or habits. This makes it hard to understand how one could use his insights in order to improve oneself. Therefore, I will formulate Covey’s arguments in terms of habits, to make it easier to implement them in our daily lives.

Frame 1: the most wanted frame…

1. The win/win frame is based on the idea that there is enough room for everyone to be successful, we do not need to see our career as a competition. With this frame one does not focus on ‘your way’ or ‘my way’ but on ‘our way’.

Frame 2: the most common frame

2. According to Covey most people are brought up with a win/lose frame, that has a focus on either ‘my way’ or loosing. Winning from someone else might be achieved by using power, position, possessions, personality or credentials.

When you are in a win/lose frame you will only feel appreciated if you do as expected, or do better than others. Thinking in terms of win/lose makes us feel compared to others all the time.

People with different capacities and different backgrounds are compared as if they are one and the same by the systems we develop. We make comparisons everywhere: in school and college, at work and with children. Even in court we are focused on winning (and loosing). The law does not make us search for synergy, or co-creation. It is about personal rights and duties. We live in a Me, Myself, and I society.

Why not grade people against their potential or against the full use of their capacity, instead of grading them in comparison to others?

Should we really view all of live as a competition? Covey thinks we should only do so in low-trust situations and those situations that actually are competitive.

Frames number 3 to 5

Other (less seen) frames are lose/win, lose/lose, and win.

3. Lose/win is about giving in and giving others what they want. Not always a good starting point, but if you value the relationship better than what you are competing about, it might be smart to lose.

4. Lose/lose is about ‘if I don’t win, you will not win either’: people that are focused on getting back at someone, or just do not grant someone else anything at all and rather loses himself too.

5. Win is about winning; you do not want the other to lose, or win as well, the point is you have a goal in mind and you do not really mind what your actions mean to others.

The best choice

Which framework is to be preferred depends on what situation we find ourselves in..

In many situations people are interdependent: we need other people while they need us for better results. This means that, in general, win/win is the frame we should aim for. On the long run, winning whilst  others lose is a losing strategy for ourselves.  It will ruin our relationships and hence our chance to work together with others.

The alternative the no deal frame

We often feel as if we must  choose one of the other four frames if the win/win frame does not work (or the other does not want to think in that direction). For these occasions, Covey offers an alternative strategy that does not bring along the negatives that are attached to the other frameworks.

The alternative is plain simple, but often overlooked. We always have the opportunity to say: no deal.

If we or the other party ends up being unhappy about the agreement, acknowledging this might be a better option than continuing in an unhappy relation and with an unwanted deal.

If the other thinks win/lose

If the person we are dealing with is in a win/lose frame while we are trying to get a win/win solution, saying ‘No deal’ is a possible and wise solution.

Just be open and say that you won’t make this specific deal, because it will damage the relationship between us and the other person. The fact that we give the relationship a central place and not the benefits that we might reap will improve the situation tremendously.

The other person will learn to value our opinion because we can show him/ her genuinely that we care about the relationship, the outcome, and the positive effect of the outcome for both of us.

Some tips from Covey to act win/win

First of all, we should not focus on the person but on the problem. The key is: do not make the problem too personal. This means there should be a focus on shared interests and not on individual positions: what is to be gained or lost?

To do this you should

1. See the problem from the other’s point of view.

2. Identify key issues and concerns.

3. Determine what results would be acceptable (or good) for both parties.

4. Look for new opportunities to achieve these results.

Getting from frameworks to habits

This, as with the other habits Covey describes, is again not very habit-like. Covey talks about a way of looking at things that should become habitual, but he talks about frameworks not about action or behavior.

I think the framework of win/win is very valuable and should be used more often than is currently done. So how can we turn Covey’s frameworks into habits that involve win/win thinking?

I assume that humans generally see the benefits (and losses) of a deal for themselves. The problems lies more in the recognition of the other and in being able to take his perspective and understand his needs and wants. In our attempts to get what we want, we are not used to focus on the wants of others. I do not believe that a focus on the desires and wants of the other person will lead to forgetting your own wants. Hence the framework might become a habit by focusing on the other.

The question Covey wants us to ask is about the sort of deals we make with other people. I suppose we could check this by making a habit out of seeing what the other wants. Could it be possible to just want your own win if you understand what the other is losing?

So the next time you interact with others, start asking yourself the question what they get out of your agreements. It will improve your relationships and that is a win no matter what!


Stephen R. Covey. “The 7 HABITS of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic.” FreePress, New York, 2004.


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/



Innovation and Research Officer at Sugar Habits
Judith studied behavioral change (applied social psychology) and is currently finishing her masters in philosophy with special attention for philosophy of action and intentionality. She works for SugarHabits a social media platform that helps people unlock more of their potential through learning new habits.

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4 Responses to “Covey #4 – think win/win”

  1. Bas Leijssenaar says:

    Do you see this as applicable to all relationships no matter the context? Or are these insights meant to be instrumental, e.g. to be used in contexts where it is actually beneficial to have a good relationship? Or is the underlying assumption that it is always better to have a good relationship? If this is the case, what is your opinion?

    • Judith Martens says:

      Hi Bas, thanks for your question.

      I would say it is important for all relationships, being friendship, family, or business relations to think win/win. Thinking about what might benefit others will benefit yourself in 1) a better relationship and 2)a higher deposit in your emotional bank account (see previous blog).

      Maybe one could say that in family and friendship the relation is more important than the winning, where in business the relationship is (at least in some way) about winning (which does not imply the other should lose).

      Hope this is an answer to your question?

      • Bas Leijssenaar says:

        Thanks for your quick reply Judith!

        As to what you have written, yes, it is an answer to my question. Unfortunately (or fortunately), it has given rise to many new questions :)

        I get your point about thinking win-win for all situations. However, I would say that this can – only – be defended from a third person perspective, a god’s eye point of view, a ‘greater good’, ‘society’, or something similar.

        Otherwise, the argument in favor of thinking win-win ultimately rests on egoïstic considerations. Consider the ‘interdependency argument’. If I recognize that a person and I are interdependent, ultimately the reason for me to consider his perspective and take a win-win approach is that it is, in the long run, better for me than not taking this approach.

        Another point, a tad more philosophical I am afraid, is that this whole thinking in terms of win/lose frames is goal-driven. It assumes that we always act with a goal in mind, wich assumes that we are very rational and so on. I have my doubts in this regard.

        Yet another point is this: assuming that win-win thinking is possible means that you also have to assume something like a third alternative that is superior, a better way to proceed than either person A or person B’s way. I’m not sure if this is feasible in many situations where I would love to see more win-win thinking, for example when conflicts between different worldviews are at stake. In these cases, saying ‘No deal’ as you suggest, seems not to be an option. They simply do not allow ‘to agree that we disagree’. Do you have any advice on how to mold such ‘conflicts’ into a win-win frame?

        One more thing: thinking win-win presupposes a specific disposition that many people do not demonstrate. I notice that many people think that they think win-win, when they actually think win-lose but are overly certain that ‘their win’ is in ‘my best interest’. Could you perhaps write on how to help others to realize that they are actually thinking win-lose instead of win-win?

        A last question: How can I implement win-win thinking in my organisation? It seems to me that win-win thinking excludes hierarchical or vertical organizational structures, am I right? So what I can think of is something like agreeing on performance requirements as equals, not as ‘boss and employee’, but not much more. Could you provide some practical implementations?

        Thanks again!

        • Thanks for the response, let me see if I can give some answers (or directions of thinking).

          As to your question about the God’s view or the egocentric view. I would say virtue ethics might give an answer. The problem I have with these kind of statements is that they pressure you to answer in a style that does not leave much room for the wanted answer. Just like asking: do you want tea or coffee does not directly leave room for wanting water or lemonade. I feel a bit pushed into a framework that is not suiting to the answer I am looking for (and neither Covey is).

          In building a relationship, we might at first have an egoistic perspective: as long as there is no relation it would be weird to say that the relation already matters to us. Yet once the relationship is there, it is no longer 1+1=2, it becomes more than that. I would say this is the moment we leave the egocentric perspective for sure. The win-win now also matters to your relationship.
          I plan another blog on virtue ethics and Covey after I finished writing about the book. I will go further into detail to answering your question there.

          As to your second question, regarding how goal-oriented humans are: I think a goal need not always be rationally thought through. Many decisions we make are made very quickly and yet they are still in line with the direction of our lives. Also I believe we are very quick at seeing what might and might not profit us in a general sense. I share your concern about the rationality of human behavior, but I don’t think that should be a problem for goal-oriented behavior in all cases.

          To your question on clashing world views I have two remarks to make.
          1. These people have conflicts that already exist: they are not making a new ‘deal’, they try to replace an old ‘deal’. This means that no deal means back to the old situation.
          2. The less wanted alternative to win/win is a compromise. I think we see a lot of compromises in the political arena: so we might say there is already win/win thinking going on.

          Your second last question is about people that are thinking win/lose while they believe they are thinking win/win. The answer lies probably in a good talk that does not stop where the other wants to stop: try to make the other see your perspective, just like you are trying to see his.

          For personal questions, like the last one, I would kindly ask you to contact me via e-mail.

          Thanks for these great points to reflect on!