Win/Win: The Story of the Cello

Author: Susan R. Johnson MD, F.A.A.P.

Published: July 31st, 2004

I have been experimenting with a new parenting skill. It is called Win/Win. I learned a little bit about it 3 years ago when I did a Global Harmony workshop. I experienced this idea again in a deeper way during a nine-day, Non-Violent Communication workshop with Marshall Rosenberg last year. Stephen Covey also wrote a book called "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families". Chapter 4 is all about Win/Win.

So what is Win/Win? Win/Win simply means that when we are attempting to resolve differences or conflicts we take the needs of both human beings into consideration. Both person's needs are equally important, and the resolution must somehow make sure that the needs of both get met. Our culture sometimes encourages the game of Win/Lose (I get my way and you don't get yours). Sometimes our job situations may allow us to work cooperatively in a Win/Win sort of fashion. We listen to each other's ideas, non-judgmentally, and then arrive at a mutual solution that meets both of our needs. Often in our personal lives, at home with our children or with our significant others, it is back to Win/Lose (e.g. "My way or the highway", "I am the parent and you are the child", "I am the boss", "Stop arguing and just do it."). Often the child or our partner may do what we demanded, but it will be out of fear and not out of mutual respect. Fear always creates barriers in intimate relationships and causes separation. Mutual respect and honoring of each other creates closeness and intimacy.

In my own life, my ex-husband and I played the game of Win/Lose for most of our nineteen years of marriage. We each thought that we were right, and therefore the other person was wrong. Whoever could argue or manipulate the most effectively or instill the most guilt usually "won" the argument. Marshall Rosenberg would say that one person may have won the battle but both lost the war. In other words to play Win/Lose ultimately results in Lose/Lose because of the resentment that is generated and the holding of grudges which carry over into the next disagreement. Win/Lose leads to separation and distancing, as well as loss of intimacy and connection. It can literally turn a relationship based on love into one that is overcome by fear.

So here is an example of Win/Win that I recently learned with my son. My son and I have an hour commute to his school everyday. We usually leave our house around 6:50 AM and arrive at school around 7:50. He had chosen the cello as his 4th-grade instrument, so two mornings a week, before school started, he would carry his cello about one block to the music room before walking back the opposite direction for another three blocks to his classroom. One fateful morning, we arrived at school a little later, about 8:05. I was the carpool driver, and I had overslept. My son started to get out of the car without his cello so I kindly reminded him that he needed to take it to the music room before going to class. He looked at me and said, "Will you take it to the music room?" I looked at him and said, "No, You have plenty of time before school starts. The cello is your responsibility and you need to take it to the music room". He said, "But then I can't play with my friends." I said, “That doesn't matter right now because you need to take your cello to the music room". He looked at me with anger and said, "I am not taking it." I said, "Fine, I am not taking it either so you won't have your cello for music class today". He said, "Fine, I won't have it for music class" and so I said, "Fine, then I am going to get out of the car right now and tell your music teacher and your class teacher why you don't have your cello today." He looked at me and said, "Fine, then I won't go to school today", and he proceeded to get back into the car. Well, here we were again at Lose/Lose. He has a strong will and spirit, and I know him well enough to know that he wouldn't go to school that day unless I could find another way to deal with this conflict.

This is the time when I said that silent prayer. I needed help. Then came that "angel" voice that whispered, "You are forgetting to play Win/Win". My son and I were both angry about this situation, and I knew from experience (and all those workshops) that we had to get beyond our hurt feelings, beyond the anger, and clarify our needs before this situation could be better resolved. First, I silently checked into my own needs. It has taken me a long time to realize that my feelings of anger and frustration come from my own unmet needs, and I usually have to run through a mental list of needs to figure out which needs are not being met. I realized that my personal needs in this situation were for respect, dependability, responsibility, cooperation, and support. What I didn't understand very clearly is what needs of my son had made him refuse to take his cello to the music room. So I asked in a calmer voice that was as non-judgmental as I could make it, "How come you won't take your cello to the music room? What is so important about being with your friends this morning?" "Mom", he said, "I like to be with my friends before school starts because we run around. I sit in this car for an hour not moving. This is the only chance I get to move before school starts. Once school starts I have to sit in my chair for most of the morning." Now I understood. He had a survival need to move his body and an interpersonal need to connect with his peers. Marshall Rosenberg says that both my needs and my son's needs are of EQUAL importance.

So what would be a Win/Win solution? If we had more time, then we could both brainstorm and come up with all the Win/Win possibilities. Time was running short and an idea suddenly came to me. I said, "I can understand now your need to move and run after being in the car so long. How about this idea for a Win/Win? If we get to school before 8:00, then there is time for you to take your cello to the music room and still run around with your friends before school starts at 8:15. If we get to school after 8:00, then I will take your cello to the music room so you have time to run around and move before having to sit down for main lesson." That was it. Those were the magic words. There are probably many possible Win/Wins we could have come up with, but that was our Win/Win. Immediately the atmosphere in the car lightened. We had preserved our relationship, shown mutual respect, and we were connected again. The taking of the cello to the music room has never been an issue again. In fact, it has become a game. We watch the clock carefully as we arrive at school. If we arrive one second before 8:00, then it is his privilege to take his cello to the music room and, of course, if we arrive at school one second after 8:00, then the privilege is mine.