Find Mediators Near You:

Where is the Give in Winner-Take-All?

This article was inspired by an enlightening conversation about the interface between politics and mediation held on January 23, 2003 at Berkeley Dispute Resolutions Service (BDRS). Participants included Linda Maio, a Berkeley city councilperson and her aid Brad Smith (who is also a mediator with BDRS), other city staff and mediators as well as other interested parties. This meeting was a novel one since mediators and politicians seem to be involved in two totally different fields.

Much energy in the alternative dispute resolution field is focused on how to move parties away from polarization and political campaigns tend to emphasize the differences between two parties or two stances. Mediators try to find the common ground between two points of view; and politicians, especially around campaign time, exploit the differences and even make them appear larger than they are. But between campaigns politicians are in the business of governing and of looking for ways to make our communities better and more peaceful even while they are up against some very divisive issues. Certainly as we looked further, we could see some common goals.

What emerged at this meeting was how constructive it would be to focus on working and educating prior to that polarization into we/them, good/evil, right/wrong, win/lose. Neither group was particularly comfortable with this thrust which was in a sense outside of the parameters of what we know best. Where at first the mediators thought they could teach the politicians something and vice versa, the meeting became a brainstorming session, a foray into unknown territory to see if there were things we could bring out from our experience to apply here and learn from each other.

After the meeting, I carried on the discussion in my head. I wondered what would happen if we trained ourselves for a different kind of world and thereby began creating that world–one where diversity of opinions and needs was actually a gift that would allow us to be more creative, more open in how we live our lives. It occurred to me that to move in that direction we might work from the viewpoints of mediators and politicians back towards some middle ground that speaks to both mediators and politicians. I see two very different arenas in which to work:

  • Teaching the skills necessary to access the collective imagination in collaboration, both to children and with ongoing training of adults.
  • Changing our government from a winner-take-all system to one that utilizes proportional voting and encourages collaboration and working together.

Teaching Collaboration Skills

I am reminded of a story I once heard from a Russian woman. “Once upon a time two brothers went for a bike ride. The older one took off and was quickly far ahead of the younger one. The younger one returned home crying. When his mother saw him, she tried to comfort him saying, ‘Don’t worry, son, your legs will grow–you will be able to win the race someday.’ And the boy, still crying, replied, ‘I didn’t want to win, I just wanted to be together.’”

Where do we learn how to be together? Can we imagine using our skills and knowledge, not to get the best of the other but to engage both our own creativity, aliveness and humanity and that of others to resolve issues?

We can hardly fault ourselves for our tendency to polarize into us and them, right and wrong since that is what we learn from the time we are tiny tots. Where are the opportunities to learn collaboration skills? And where is the glory for that? No, clearly, what we reward is individual talent, individual effort, individual wins, even though most individual gains are rarely that—an individual usually has had some help to get where they are. We must get rid of the illusion that we are a country of isolated individuals pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. The process of giving and taking help is not one to be ashamed of—quite the contrary, it is where we find the most satisfaction.

We have taken competition about as far as it will go. Never has it been more evident that our world is being ripped apart by conflict, war and fear. Even in the few arenas where collaboration is rewarded (such as in sports or the military), the reward comes for winning as a group over another, often demonized, group. And often within the group are strict hierarchical structures that are enforced without much regard for individual ideas. The models we have lived by for so long must be called into question. And yet often our so-called solutions engage once more in the splitting apart of countries, states, groups and families to try to control out-of-control lives. Our society needs citizens who can work together, who are whole and can tap into new sources of creativity. We are in need of something different; instead of continuing to pull apart, we need to pull together to come up with creative ideas to fix what’s wrong. Unless we seek each other out and learn how to be inclusive rather than exclusive, our energy will continue to be war-like and destructive.

The question we should ask is not how a particular viewpoint can be proven right, but how to go about solving the problem. For resolution we need to make room for a third way that is usually not one side or the other “winning.”

Certainly the growth of mediation and the alternative dispute resolution field is a step in this direction. But are there ways outside of a more formal mediation setting to teach collaborative skills? I believe we can teach these skills and create in ourselves a fluency in collaboration. In his book Shared Minds (Random House: New York, 1990), Michael Shrange a businessperson and advocate of recognizing our societal need to balance individualism with collaboration predicts that, “Collaborative fluency will become as important an interpersonal skill as verbal fluency and literacy.” (p. 189).

In my book The Emperor Has A Body: Body-Politics in the Between, I describe what I call the Between which is the space that opens up when we refuse to dichotomize and, in fact, actually begin to heal those splits. It is that space where we are connected and which has in it a creativity that none of us has alone. To enter the Between, it is often necessary to dispense with linear thinking for a time and allow ideas to flow through other, less entrenched-with-old-values ways. Words, arguments and more words only tend to hone our skills to get the best of others and to win rather than resolve the problem. For “Between” work, we need to learn how to listen, how to get along with others, how to get outside of our individualistic egos long enough to allow wisdom to come through.

In Minding the Body, Inc. a small non-profit corporation of which I am Executive Director, we use art, music, movement, dreams and improv to access the Between of us, that collaborative space in which creativity flourishes. We identify skills needed to deliberately access the Between and experiment with how to teach those skills. Eight women (Viviane DeLeon Bias, Lucy Colvin, Constance Hester, Valerie Kay, Mary Milton, Brigid Ryan, Elise Peeples and Claudia Wolz) who had expertise in non-linear arenas collaborated on authoring The Spiral, a workbook designed to engage groups in learning these skills. We have experimented among ourselves with these methods by gathering for entire weekends in which all we do is find ways to enter the Between with each other. Then we have modeled our own ever-growing skills to help others learn as well.

We can develop these collaborative skills at every level. Once we understand that we are not losing something by collaborating and we experience the gain in insight, knowledge, wisdom, perspective, not to mention creativity, a new world opens up to us. The Between is not about being altruistic or paternalistic; it is in our own interest to be inclusive–we need each other to access this creativity and wisdom that cannot be found in isolated individuals. In whatever groups we find ourselves: family, neighborhood, workplace, church, temple, mosque or forest, social groups, artistic, political, governmental, charity, etc. we can begin the practice.

At the same time that we are learning collaboration skills, we can be working towards changes in our political structure that would allow for those skills to be utilized at the level of politics and voting. That brings me to the other arena in which work need to be done to make a place for these skilled individuals to better utilize collaborative skills in governance.

Proportional Voting

Once again we might look to children to help us see a way out of our entrenched winner-take-all system. In children’s play often when they are split as to which game to play next, they take a vote. The winners get to play their choice first but the game the minority chose is played next. That way nobody loses and everyone gets to play the game they wanted.

Unfortunately, in adult political systems, one of the highest values is winning or being right. And the winners do not include the minority, but go on to play only the winning choice. Collaboration is the exception rather than the rule. Both sides of the political spectrum have put a tremendous value on having the majority of votes, of Democrats/Republicans, etc. It is so entrenched we can hardly see it. We are either Democrats or Republicans. The two-party, winner-take-all system has become synonymous with American politics. Early in our history we institutionalized this winner-take-all form of government, launching us into this dichotomous situation with barely room for a third party let alone a government made up of a distribution of interests. Methods of voting that incorporate proportional voting were invented after our winner-take-all system was put in place. These systems, successful in other countries, are more inclusive and responsive and better reflect the varying interests of a pluralistic society such as ours.

Steven Hill in his book Fixing Elections: The Failure of America’s Winner Take All Politics shows us how the winner-take-all voting system has negatively affected the five defining dimensions of a democratic republic: representation, participation, political discourse and campaigns, legislative policy and national unity. In contrast, the Proportional Principle produces a fuller representation that reflects those it governs, i.e. greater numbers of women and minorities. “Representation becomes more of a power-sharing arrangement than a power-over arrangement; politics is conducted more on a basis of consensus building and problem-solving, rather than on an adversarial battlefield plagued by political games and brinkmanship.” (Fixing Elections, p. 292)

A winner-take-all system ensures the thinking that winning is all that matters and that there is no room for dialogue and debate. This thinking creates domination and stifles creativity along with any true sense of give and take. Collaboration is rarely in the interests of whoever has the majority because they have the power to vote in whatever they want without consulting the minority. If there were pluralities instead of clear majorities, our representatives would have to work together to find solutions to problems. The best leaders would be those who had collaboration skills, those who could set aside their egos and allow the process to work. San Francisco recently passed an instant runoff measure that makes it possible for voters to rank their first three choices for a particular office. If the top vote getter does not have a majority, the candidate with the least amount of support is eliminated from the runoff and the 2nd choices are counted. This system allows room for more than two parties to begin to build a legitimate base.

Though instant runoff does not go as far as a proportional voting system that would make possible the representation of a wider spectrum of interests in government, it is a step in the direction of inclusivity. The San Francisco mayoral race in 2003 will be an interesting test of how different a campaign must be run to “win” the race. It has been predicted that the instant runoff will cut down on negative campaigning and encourage a more issue-based rhetoric.

Both mediators and politicians have skills and can work together to develop skills to function in an inclusive system that gives the minority viewpoint true representation. We need to support teach each other in learning these skills and in changing the system to make it responsive to collaborative efforts. And we desperately need creative solutions to our problems that do not continue to repeat past mistakes. To reach those solutions, our best hope is inclusivity and working together, weaving all of our strengths together into a resilient social foundation capable of give and take.


Hester, Constance and Peeples, Elise, eds. The Spiral: Exploring the Between. Berkeley, Minding the Body, 2000.

Hill, Steven. Fixing Elections: The Failure of America’s Winner Take All Politics. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

Peeples, S. Elise. The Emperor Has A Body: Body:Politics in the Between. Tucson: Javelina Books, 1998.

Schrage, Michael. Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration. New York: Random House, 1990.


Featured Mediators

View all

Read these next


A Reality Check

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack One of the jobs of a mediator is to provide a “reality check”; to be a neutral, dispassionate third party, who can be...

By Phyllis Pollack

5 Ways Custody Mediation in Ontario is Unique

In Ontario, most separating parents are able to resolve disagreements over decision-making responsibility (formerly known as custody) and parenting time (formerly known as access) outside of court. One of the...

By Ben Coltrin

The Wisdom Trail: A Limerick

This limerick was offered by Gail Bingham at the 'Non-talent Show" of the "Consolidating Our Wisdom" Conference at Keystone October 8-11, 2006.One hundred and more on a whim Invited by...

By Gail Bingham