The 7 Steps to a Win-Win

This article is an excerpt from 9 Lies that Will Destroy Your Marriage by Greg Smalley and Robert Paul

You can spend your married life fighting or compromising, but why should you when there’s a much better alternative? We challenge you to aim higher: Seek solutions that you both feel really good about. That’s what we mean by win-win. Here, Greg Smalley walks you through the Seven Steps to a Win-Win and then illustrate them by showing an example of how this tool worked for him and his wife, Erin.

One late Sunday evening, Erin found Garrison, our then-fourteen-year-old son, and me engrossed in a Sunday night NFL game down in our basement—the man cave! It was an epic battle between two elite teams that had come down to the final few minutes.

“You’re still watching football?” Erin asked Garrison, sounding surprised. “I thought you had English homework that’s due tomorrow.”

“I’ll get it done,” Garrison defended. “The game is almost finished.”

“It’s almost ten!” Erin countered. “Get upstairs right now and do your homework!”

“But Mom,” Garrison begged, “there’s only three minutes left and the game is tied. Just let me finish and then I’ll get my homework done.”

“N . . . O . . . ” Erin slowly sounded out her final response to Garrison. “Get to your room N . . . O . . . W!” Defeated, Garrison stomped up the stairs in protest.

“You’re being a little rough on the boy,” I nonchalantly commented. “There were only a few minutes left.”

And that was the exact moment that the power struggle went from Erin versus Garrison to Erin versus Greg.

“What did you just say?” Erin asked, slowly turning her head toward me.

Oh boy, I thought.

“Your son is obsessed with football,” Erin argued. “The entire weekend, all he does is watch college football and NFL football.

He’s an addict!”

Needless to say, the accusation triggered my emotional buttons, and we ended up in one of those grinding two-hour deliberations that I used to have with my parents. I felt that Erin was being unfair to characterize Garrison as obsessed or addicted for watching football. Really, Erin was just trying to explain that she felt this area of his life was out of balance.

As we argued about Garrison’s football-watching habits, it’s not that we yelled at each other or said hurtful things. I just exhausted Erin from the mental sparring, and she eventually gave up. Sadly, I won out of attrition—I simply wore her down.

Erin started to climb the stairs to our bedroom. She took a few steps and looked back at me and said, “Your mother warned me about this before we got married.”

And that was the end of our “discussion.”

The next day, after a relatively sleepless night, we both apologized and worked out a plan around weekend football for our son that we both felt good about. Here is how we found a win-win solution.

via Unsplash by David Dvoracek

Step 1. Adopt the “No Losers” Policy

Even though you may in principle have fully bought into the idea that you either both win or both lose, it’s worth reiterating to your spouse that in this moment you are operating with a commitment to both winning. As Erin and I started to talk, I wanted to reiterate that we were on the same team: “Before we begin trying to sort this out, I want to make sure you know that I won’t accept any solution here until we both feel really good about it. I want our team to win, and therefore, how you feel is going to matter every bit as much as how I feel.” Although leery of my propensity to engage her in another long debate, Erin nodded her head in agreement.

Step 2. Heart Talk the Issue

Since we’ve defined a win-win as a solution you both feel good about, it’s hard to arrive at that unless you take the time to find out how each person feels. In the previous chapter we told you that Heart Talk is not meant to be used to solve problems but is designed as a tool for understanding and connecting. When used in its purest form, that’s true. However, in the context of problem-solving, it can pull double duty.

In this use of Heart Talk, you still want to care about the feelings of your spouse, but you are also mining critical information. If I want to find a solution we both love, I need to clearly know how I feel so I can make sure it’s accounted for. But it’s every bit as important to really know how Erin feels. In this case, the more of the emotional data I have, the easier it is to creatively find options we can both like. Without it, it’s more like shooting in the dark and hoping you hit something.

“What was going on for you last night?” I asked Erin.

“Your comment that I was being ‘rough’ on Garrison left me feeling like the villain— the mean old mom trying to wreck everyone’s fun. Garrison is really struggling in English, and his grade is slipping. If it goes too low, he won’t be able to play basketball for his school. I felt unsupported and a lone— that it’s solely my job to worry about his grades.”

via Unsplash by Priscilla Du Preez

I tried to mirror back what I was hearing Erin express. “So you didn’t feel supported by me and feel Garrison’s grades are solely your responsibility.”

“Yes, absolutely. What about you?” Erin asked. “What was going on for you last night?”

“My mom used to do the same thing to me when I was a teenager,” I explained. “She would get frustrated with my dad and would kick me out of the living room, where we had the only TV. I always felt disrespected when she did that to me. Last night, Garrison and I had invested several hours into that game. So when you made him leave with only a few minutes left, I felt cheated out of enjoying the final outcome with my son, and I felt disrespected—like my decision to let him watch the game was wrong in your eyes. Instead of talking about it, you just kicked him out.”

“So you felt cheated that you didn’t get to finish the game together and disrespected because I told him to leave without checking with you first.”

“Yes,” I affirmed Erin, “you listened perfectly.”

via Unsplash by brooklyn

Step 3. Pray for Unity

This powerful step serves two important purposes. First, we don’t ever want to try to overcome our challenges without the benefit of the Lord’s wisdom and guidance. I took Erin’s hand and we prayed, “Lord, we are not together on this. We are not on the same page. But we truly desire unity. Please help us find a solution we both feel good about. Thank You for being in the middle of this with us.”

But the wonderful added benefit here is that as soon as you pray together for God’s help, you’ve already restored unity, even prior to finding a win-win solution. Notice, you were not together before this: my ideas versus your ideas, my feelings versus your feelings. However, now you join together and ask God to help you find a solution you both feel great about. From this point forward the two of you are working together with God—unity is restored.

All you need now is a solution.

Step 4. Brainstorm Your Options

This is the work step. Use any methods you can think of to find ideas and possibilities you both might feel good about. Talk to people who’ve dealt with similar issues, google it, get creative. Most commonly, just get out a piece of paper and start writing down each other’s ideas. Don’t be afraid to suggest “crazy” ideas. If they are truly crazy, you can throw them out later. But often, it’s some of the craziest ideas that lead to options that turn out to be brilliant. (You know, that was crazy, but it got me to thinking about X.)

If you have an idea rattling around in your head, get it out by writing it down.

“What is it that you need from me to feel supported around Garrison’s grades?” I asked.

“I don’t want to be the only one asking if his homework is completed or if he’s studied for an upcoming test,” Erin responded. “I want us to be a team around his English grade.”

“Absolutely,” I agreed. “I want us both to help him succeed in school.”

“What do you need from me?” Erin asked.

“I want to feel included in how we hold him accountable,” I explained.

“Sounds good to me,” Erin responded.

Step 5. Evaluate Options and Choose One You Both Feel Good About

This step is fairly self-explanatory. Just remember you’re not looking to settle or compromise but to hang in there until both of you feel as if you’ve landed on a win-win.

As Erin and I sat there, suddenly an idea hit me. “What if Garrison picks the one football game that he really wants to watch, and then we make a new rule that he can’t watch it until his homework is done. We can always record the game if he needs extra time or help with his homework or preparing for a test.”

“I love that idea,” Erin replied. “And then we can do some other things as a family besides watching football.”

via Unsplash by Eldar Nazarov

Step 6. Try It

This step is essential. Just because it sounded like a w in- win when you were talking about it doesn’t mean it will feel like one when you try it.

Step 7. Check Back In and Rework It, If Necessary

If this solution is not working out for both of you, cycle back up and reassert your commitment to the “no losers” policy. Heart Talk what felt good and what didn’t. Pray for additional help. Brainstorm new options or tweaks to what you already had. Come with the new win-win, try it, and reevaluate. Don’t quit until you’re both pleased with the result.

After implementing the new rule with Garrison, his grade in English improved. The hardest part of our win-win plan was the fact that there are college football games all day Saturday and NFL games all day Sunday, Monday night, and now Thursday night—it’s like the NFL is trying to take over the world! The US could be invaded by some foreign enemy and no one would even notice because we’re all watching football! So we have to keep tweaking the plan so Garrison and I can watch a few other great games while maintaining balance.

One of the things that make this so powerful for believers is that we serve a God who is committed to unity. He lives in a perfectly unified triune relationship: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He wants nothing more than to also be in unity with us and to help us be in unity with each other. It does require a little faith to test this out, but this seven-step process gives us a golden opportunity to watch the Lord demonstrate His commitment to us over and over again. It has been a huge faith builder for us and countless others who’ve had the courage to try. We hope and pray for your encouragement and success too!

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9 Lies That Will Destroy Your Marriage by Greg Smalley and Robert Paul

Lies about marriage are rampant in our culture and the church. They’re killing marriages. But the corresponding truths can strengthen marriages and even save the most troubled relationships. In this book, marriage experts Greg Smalley and Robert Paul identify the lies, explain how they work to destroy marriages, and reveal the truths that not only can improve marriages but rescue those that are floundering.

Hope Restored, the renowned crisis marriage program created for Focus on the Family, is the basis for the discovery and understanding of these specific lies and their impact. Dr. Greg Smalley, a general marriage expert, and Robert Paul, the therapeutic director of a program that resuscitates nearly dead marriages, bring an unusual but powerful combination of perspectives that restore hope and healing in any marriage.

9 Lies That Will Destroy Your Marriage includes several self-tests to help you assess the extent to which your own marriage has been affected by each of the nine lies.

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