Walking Away Equally Unhappy

Ever hear the phrase “a good negotiation is one where both parties walk equally unhappy?”

I’ve heard it attributed to various negotiation programs, and always intuitively knew it felt wrong. Applied to the metaphor of relationships, which I feel is a better metaphor for matters of trust, it comes up wanting.

In the relationship metaphor world, “both parties walking away equally unhappy” is a recipe for divorce.


I figured that for a tidy little blog topic, so I googled the phrase “walk away equally unhappy”—but found only eleven instances in total.

Of the eleven, only three used the phrase approvingly: once by a divorce attorney, once by an estate lawyer, and once by an online commenter talking about buying used cars online. Hey, I just report the news.

Most uses of the phrase were said by way of disapproval—the bulk coming from Diane Levin. Diane is a lawyer by training, but a mediator by inclination. An early champion of ADR (alternative dispute resolution), it’s clear from her writings (I don’t know her personally beyond her “about me” section) she is well versed in and receptive to the idea that one plus one is very much what we make of it.
Whether the arena is corporate negotiations or divorce or contract disputes, her motto is “only connect,” which she does online as well as in real life. Negotiations need not be adversarial interactions; each such interaction is another opportunity to create unlimited value.

At the risk of appearing un-objective—she is completely right.

Yul Brynner reportedly said, “We come into this world alone, and we leave it the same way; if someone offers you friendship along the way, you don’t spit on it.” That’s the minimalist, barebones, ironic statement of the proposition. It’s true even said that way.

We have a choice about how to deal with others. We can take the risks of trusting, and of being trusted. Or we can shut down. If we do the former, sometimes we get burned. That’s life.

Butif we spend our lives, and build our institutions, and conduct our economies, so as to avoid getting burned, we end up losing our life too. Just a little more slowly, and qualitatively. But no less in the end.

Kudos to Diane, who won’t settled for people walking away equally unhappy. Good for you.

3 replies
  1. Diane Levin
    Diane Levin says:

    Charles, thank you so much for this post and the kind words. I sense that you and I are kindred spirits, and it makes me glad to know that there are others like me who reject the notion that the best that negotiation can offer two people is the chance to walk away from the table equally unhappy. Even worse is the belief that negotiation is only successful when blood — not your own — is spilled on the sand.

    Thank you for pointing out how important relationships really are — they are what get the job done, make businesses succeed, and people thrive. (Oops, sorry, I’m preaching to the choir now.)

    It’s also a pleasure to become reacquainted with your blog, Charles. Your philosophy is one shared by many like me who mediate. Thank you again for linking!

  2. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    When one gets up in the morning and chooses to live life according to a "zero-sum" equation, well, there’s most often unhappiness that results in some way, shape or form.

    The broken link in your graphic is a metaphor for one’s disconnect with one’s True and Real self, one’s own heart and lacking that connection, of course, one cannot connect-mentally, emotionally or spiritually with another. So, at work, at home, at play, and in relationship it’s then a matter of "I vs. you"  rather than a deeper, more honest and more trusting connection that manifests "we" or "us".   

  3. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    Nice to hear from you, and thanks to you again for a fine body of work. 

    Peter, thanks for noticing the graphic!  Hey everyone reading this on email, those graphics are consciously chosen and on occasion are even witty!  I like your idea that living in a zero-sum way is a choice–a choice we make every minute, to live that way or not.  And I  agree with your assessment of the consequences.


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