| June 25, 2018

Last updated: October 19, 2018

A Man's Life

The 7 Habits: Think Win/Win

Welcome back to our monthly series that summarizes, expands, and riffs on each of the seven habits laid out in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.

The first of Covey’s 7 Habits are what he calls the “habits of private victory”: Being Proactive, Beginning With the End in Mind, and Putting First Things First prompt us to get our own lives in order. By living these first three habits, we start acting as autonomous, high-agency individuals, learn to recognize what we want in life, and begin to turn our ideals into reality.

But we don’t live in a vacuum. We have to interact with other people who have their own desires and ambitions that might conflict with our own. Sure, your goal in life might be to get a job with a certain company, but that company has its own goals and might not think you’re the guy to help reach them. Or maybe you have a goal of working out first thing in the morning, but your wife wants you to help get the kids ready for the day.

How do you successfully navigate the world as an individual who lives among other individuals?

That’s what the next three habits seek to answer. Covey calls them the “habits of public victory,” and the first of this trio of outward-facing habits — Think Win/Win — provides the framework, or “paradigm” in Covey-speak, for all of them.

Seek to Order Yourself First, Before You Seek to Order the World

The habits of public victory build off the habits of private victory. You can’t skip the inward habits and expect to successfully implement the outward ones. Before you can successfully interact and cooperate with other individuals, you have to be an individual yourself. You have to know who you are, where you’re going, and what you stand for. Failure to develop a strong sense of self will only result in frustration and confusion as you bump up against other people who all have their own agendas, and will pull you this way and that.

In other words, if you want to fix the world, start by fixing yourself first.

Jordan B. Peterson has said something similar; to paraphrase Peterson-speak: “Sort yourself out, bucko, before you try sorting out the world.”

Now does this mean you have to have your inner life in complete order before you start trying to order the world around you? Of course not. You’d never get started with the outward habits if you did that. No one is ever entirely “sorted out.” It’s a lifelong process. But if you are to have any progress with the outer habits, you need to be in progress with developing the inner ones.

The Public Habits Are “Unsexy,” But Critical

While it’s crucial to order yourself before you try ordering the world, I think a bigger problem than getting these steps out of order, is failing to ever move on to the latter part of the equation. 

While sorting yourself out may seem like a “hardcore” principle, and is indeed a task that will require grit and determination, in truth, it’s the easiest, most fun and excitement-filled part of improving your life.

It’s a bit thrilling to set your own course. The project has a wonderfully simple, single-minded focus; responsible for yourself alone, you’re freed from the entangling burdens of external alliances.

I think that’s why I’ve noticed when people talk about The 7 Habits, they talk enthusiastically about the first three, which have to do with private victories — what I call the “sexy” habits — and pretty much ignore the subsequent ones that deal with other people.

But the habits of public victory are overlooked at an individual’s peril. They may be unsexy, but they’re critical to achievement in every area of life. 

Here in America, we love the idea of the “self-made man.” The scrappy, rugged individualist who, without any help from others, pulls himself up by his bootstraps and makes his way in the world.

It’s certainly an inspiring archetype that encourages the admirable virtues of initiative and self-reliance.

But it’s a myth. A useful and inspiring myth, but a myth nonetheless.

The reality is that our success in life isn’t purely an individual effort. Yes, it requires pluck and drive on our part, but it also requires the cooperation of others, no matter how autonomous your path in life.

If you’re a writer, you need readers. If you’re an entrepreneur, you need customers — and have to deal with employees. If you want to create a flourishing family culture, you need to work together on it with your wife. If you want friends, well, you need to interact with folks other than yourself!

You can’t reach full flourishing in your professional, familial, and social life without other people.

So while personal initiative is necessary for success, it’s not sufficient. Our relationships (and a bit of luck) are the other critical part of the equation.

The 4 Paradigms of Relationships

Relationships may be essential to our success, but they sure can be hard to navigate. We have to work with people who have their own ideas, their own goals, and their own way of viewing the world.

In every relationship, whether business or personal, each party wants something, and Covey lays out four possible dynamics/outcomes that can emerge from this collision of agendas:

Win/Win

Everybody feels like they benefit from the relationship. Agreements and solutions are mutually advantageous and all parties are committed to making the agreement work. In business, this could mean a contract that’s equally beneficial; in a family, it could be a chore arrangement that both parents and children are on board with.

Win/Lose

In a Win/Lose paradigm, you get what you want while the other party feels like they got the short end of the stick. According to Covey, individuals who utilize a Win/Lose paradigm tend “to use positions, power, credentials, possessions, or personality to get their way.”

Win/Lose is when a boss tells his employee that he needs to stay late after work or else he’ll lose his job, or when a parent tells his kid to pick up his room because “I said so.”

There’s certainly a place for a Win/Lose paradigm. A football game requires a winner and loser, some business markets can only support one dominant firm, and sometimes kids have to do stuff they don’t want to do, even if, from their perspective, they don’t stand to benefit.

But the Win/Lose dynamic often results in a pyrrhic victory — you gain what you want in the short-term, while damaging a relationship in the long-term.

Lose/Win

Individuals who take the Lose/Win approach towards relationships are the stereotypical “nice guys.” They’re the doormats of life. They just let people walk all over them. They approach every encounter with another person through the paradigm of “I surrender, and you get what you want.”

“I’ll do whatever you want to do.”

“Oh, you were late with that report? That’s completely fine! Don’t worry about it. No big deal!”

“I won’t go hang out with my friends because I know it bothers you.

For Covey, Lose/Win is even worse than Win/Lose because at least the person who approaches relationships from the latter perspective has some standards and self-respect that he’s willing to fight for! The Lose/Win guy doesn’t believe in anything — he just wants to avoid conflict and keep people liking him.

The insidious thing about Lose/Win is that while it can smooth relationships over in the short-term, resentment and anger slowly builds up in the individual who takes this approach towards life. And that resentment can eventually ooze out in passive aggressiveness or explode in rage.

That isn’t to say there isn’t sometimes a place for Lose/Win in our lives. Maybe we take that approach when the issue is truly not worth making a fuss over, or when belaboring it would do harm to the long-term relationship. Maybe a negotiating partner wants a term that would inconvenience you in the short-term, but is a big deal to him; you can make a federal case about it, but it may harm the business relationship down the road. Covey would argue that maybe the wise thing to do is concede on that point and take the hit for the sake of your long-term prospects. Knowing when to fold, though, requires one to have a firm sense of purpose and self.

Lose/Lose

Lose/Lose is cutting off your nose to spite your face. If you’re going down, everyone else is going down with you. Lose/Lose situations occur when two stubborn and prideful people are pitted against each other. Lose/Lose is the businessman who bankrupts his company litigating a lawsuit that was launched to get back at a competitor; it’s the friend who makes the evening miserable for everyone because he didn’t get to do what he wanted.

While Win/Lose or Lose/Win can be used strategically and sparingly, there’s probably no situation in which adopting the Lose/Lose approach is beneficial.

How Seeking Win/Win Relationships Develops Your Maturity

While there’s certainly a time and place for Win/Lose and Lose/Win in our dealings with our fellow humans, Covey believes that the Win/Win dynamic is the one we should strive for most, since it’s the only one in which you get what you want and you strengthen the long-term health of a relationship.

But I also think that seeking win/win relationships is a key in helping us achieve maturity — a firm, well-sorted posture that promotes well-being and success in every area of life.

Here’s how:

Develops your humility. The idea that you can get where you’re going alone is a product of ego, and ego is the enemy. Individual success, Covey says, is actually a product of interdependency, and interdependency naturally presupposes dependency, a condition we hate to countenance. But forthrightly acknowledging the way we rely on others to exist and succeed demonstrates not only a clear-eyed realism, but a sober humility.

Recognizes the full humanity of others. When you’re young (or immature at any age), you feel the world revolves around you. Even if it’s unconscious, you don’t see everyone else as fully human — at least not in the way you see yourself; you don’t recognize the fact that they have needs, desires, and dreams that are just as salient to them as yours are to you. (How long did it take you to realize that your parents don’t exist entirely as your mother and father, but are people with lives and identities just as distinct and complex as your own?)

When you seek Win/Win relationships, you recognize that other people have goals that are just as real as yours — you recognize their individuality. That not only helps you understand the world better, and navigate it with less frustration, but that level of perspicuity makes you a more mature, fully formed individual yourself.

Requires a long-term perspective. When you go through life trying to make relationships Win/Lose, you can certainly get what you want in the short-term. But you burn bridges, and often sabotage your chances of success in the long-term. Seeking a Win/Win situation thus involves exercising the capacity of delayed gratification — putting in the effort upfront to make sure that not only do you get want you want, but that the other person does too, so that you’ll not only benefit in the moment but down the line as well. 

Requires becoming assertive. Guys who approach relationships from the paradigm of Win/Lose are overly aggressive. Guys who approach them from the paradigm of Lose/Lose are overly passive.

The best approach is to avoid these extremes in favor of pursuing a golden mean between them; that is, being assertive.

Diagram from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

When you’re assertive, you’re able to state what you want firmly and without apology, but also take into consideration the needs and desires of others. You don’t act like a petulant child and just make demands, nor let people walk all over you like a quintessential Nice Guy. You directly pursue what you want, without being an a**hole about it.

Or as Covey eloquently puts it, “Maturity is the balance between courage and consideration.”

Offers a grown-up challenge. The public, outward-facing habits aren’t as sexy or fun as the inward-focused, private ones because the latter deal with a single variable: yourself.

But cultivating the other-oriented habits can offer its own distinct satisfaction, interest, and even excitement, when viewed from a certain frame of mind — one which, befitting Covey’s terminology, sees relationships as something of a game.

Now, I don’t mean you should treat relationships as a game in the sense of treating people as playthings without regard to their feelings and goals. But rather looking at them as a challenge, a puzzle, an arena in which thoughtful tactics and strategy must be deployed. Every scenario is different, and there are no preset or universal rules. How can you maneuver multiple variables so that everyone ends up with some reward? What moves can you make so that you get what you want, but the other person feels like they benefit as well? Can you improvise? Can you use your phronesis — your practical wisdom to find the best solution?

Figuring how to get to Win/Win isn’t a child’s game, but a mature pursuit for he who’s sorted out himself, and is ready to move on to sorting out the world.

Read the Whole Series

  1. Be Proactive, Not Reactive
  2. Begin With the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win/Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
  6. Synergy (Beyond the Eye-Rolling Buzzword)
  7. Sharpen the Saw
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