Win-Win, Win-Lose, or No-Win 

Human beings come hard-wired with a need for power, autonomy, or some sense of control in their world. When this need is not satisfied, people can be quite creative about finding ways to meet these needs. 

Our automatic reaction—especially in dealing with children or someone we consider lower on the power-based food chain—tends toward increasing our attempts at control, even to the point of disempowerment, punishment, deprivation, abandonment (physical or emotional), or pain. This is particularly true when we perceive our only options as either controlling or being controlled—the case with all-or-nothing thinking, sometimes called dualistic or black-and-white thinking.

Fortunately there is a third, middle-ground option—and a much better way. This route applies to working or living with children and can equally apply to adult relationships. 

Options available with All-or-Nothing Thinking

Behavior: Rebellious, Defiant, Disobedient

Descriptor: Self-Centered

Focus: My needs

Goal: Having my own way no matter what; power; being left alone

Responsibility: Someone else’s fault; sees little connection between behavior and outcomes; OR “forced to do it.” 

Power Play: Uses power to disempower, or may ignore or fight against power; escalates power struggles; win-lose

Power Tools: Anger, violence; passive-aggressiveness; secrecy; isolation

Feelings: Difficulty expressing feelings or needs in constructive, non-violating ways; difficulty controlling anger; may feel very frustrated at lack of options, being limited or stuck.

Costs: Relationships

Stays safe by: Not needing you, not caring; intimidation: breaking things, picking on someone smaller or with less power (bullying), hair-trigger reactiveness to keep people walking on eggshells.

Boundaries: Few, as far as others are concerned

— OR —

Behavior: Compliant, Obedient

Descriptor: Self-Abandoning

Focus: Your needs (or my need to look like I’m more concerned with your needs)

Goal: Avoiding conflict and abandonment; approval seeking

Responsibility: Disempowered; sees self as victim, having few choices; “Just following orders.”

Power Play: Gives power away; leaving decisions in other people’s hands; infantilization, “not knowing,” may self-harm for a sense of control; lose-win

Power Tools: Being “nice;” being perfect; doing what everyone expects; achievement, recognition; tears, guilt; passive-aggressiveness; leaving decisions to others (and then blaming or complaining) 

Feelings: Feelings are often “stuffed” and/or denied; vulnerable to tolerance breaks, can be explosive.

Costs: Sense of self; self-worth

Stays safe by: Keeping you happy (so you won’t criticize, express disapproval, be disappointment or leave); people-pleasing; secrecy

Boundaries: Few, as far as self is concerned

A Positive, Win-Win Alternative

Behavior: Cooperative, Considerate

Descriptor: Self-Caring

Focus: My needs and your needs

Goal: Getting what I want with a minimum of conflict and inconvenience for others

Responsibility: Responsible for own behavior; sees self as having choices (options) and power

Power Play: Shares power; win-win (respectful of others’ need for power and autonomy)

Power Tools: Negotiating, compromise; ability to identify personal needs; self-expression; ability to make you a deal you can’t refuse (no threat, no risk); asking or considering what others want before making decisions; independence with respect for others

Feelings: Not necessary to use feelings to manipulate, hurt, or control; can express feelings in non-hurtful ways; less likely to take things personally or be provoked to fight

Costs: May create conflict with authoritarian or manipulative people. Can threaten, upset or alienate people with weak or no boundaries.

Stays safe by: Identifying and expressing needs; Taking care of self. (Probably feels pretty safe to begin with.)

Boundaries: Has personal boundaries; respects others’ boundaries

Excerpted and adapted from The Win-Win Classroom by © Dr. Jane Bluestein (2008, Corwin Publishing, Thousand Oaks, CA). Original chart appeared in Parents, Teens & Boundaries: How to Draw the Line © Jane Bluestein (1995, Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL).

© 1995, 2008, 2012, 2022, Dr. Jane Bluestein

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