We all negotiate, almost every day. Many of us think we’re good at it. Most of us are wrong. (More)

Getting to Yes, Part I – The Problem and the Method

This week Morning Feature looks at the classic Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton of the Harvard Negotiation Project. Today we look at the problem of positional bargaining and the method of principled negotiation. Tomorrow we’ll consider the most common objections to principled negotiation. Saturday we’ll review the debt ceiling deal through the lens of principled negotiation.

First published in 1977, Getting to Yes is a standard text in negotiation as taught in law and business schools across the country. In their preface to the third edition, published in 2011, the authors contend that negotiation has become more important than ever as political, business, and social structures around the world grow less hierarchical. In a strict hierarchy, there is little need to negotiate. People make their pitches to the boss: the king, the owner, the father. The boss makes a decision and his decision is carried out. As JanF noted Tuesday in HEMMED In, Solomon could save the baby because he was the king.

But in a democracy, a well-managed modern business, or a nurturing family, more people want input in decisions and more decisions must be reached by negotiation. The authors call this the negotiation revolution, the decision-making complement to the information revolution. The benefit is that, if negotiation is done well, more of us do influence more decisions. But there’s a problem. Most of us don’t negotiate well. Indeed, most of us don’t know what “negotiating well” even looks like.

The Problem – Positional Bargaining

Ask most people to describe a negotiation, and their answers will illustrate what the authors call positional bargaining. One party takes a position Way Over Here. The other takes a position Way Over There. Each “draws lines in the sand,” and then begin a contest of wills. To reach a deal, they must cross those lines, slowly, grudgingly, after bluster and posturing. The party that gets the most and gives up the least is the ‘winner.’

The authors propose three criteria for judging a negotiation. It should produce a wise agreement – one that meets the legitimate interests of the parties to the extent possible, resolves conflicting interests fairly, is durable, and takes community interests into account – if such an agreement is possible. The negotiation process should also be efficient. And it should improve or at least not damage the relationship between the parties.

Positional bargaining usually fails those tests. Announced positions become litmus tests. The more the parties defend those positions, the more they and their supporters become committed to those positions, even if those positions would not constitute a wise agreement. Standing firm and driving a hard bargain matter more than substance. Positional bargaining is also inefficient, because positions must be ceded grudgingly if at all. If the negotiation ends too quickly, even the ‘winning’ party may feel they “left something on the table.” Why else would the other party have surrendered so easily? And while “hard” positional bargaining is more effective than “soft” positional bargaining, it often damages the parties’ relationship.

Finally, positional bargaining rewards ruthlessness and power. Given equal power, the harder bargainer will win. Given equally hard bargainers, the party with more power will win. There must be a better, more progressive way. And there is.

The Method – Principled Negotiation

Principled negotiation is built around four key ideas:

1. Separate the People from the Problem. Negotiators are people first, with emotions, deeply held values, different backgrounds, cognitive biases, partisan perceptions, and blind spots. That includes all of us. Most negotiations take place in the context or with the hope of an ongoing relationship. The other political party’s leaders will not just disappear when this negotiation is finished. Neither will the other people in the office, on the community board, or in the family room.

Principled negotiation is “soft on the people, but hard on the problem.” It calls for empathy, compassion, and a willingness to soothe hurt feelings even as you hold firm on your party’s interests. It requires active listening, and the patience to explain your interests again. Most of all, it requires communicating with the other negotiator(s). Principled negotiations are usually private because public negotiations become performances, where the negotiators worry more about looking good for the audience than reaching a wise agreement.

2. Focus on Interests, not Positions. Positions are what the parties ask for. Interests are the reasons the parties ask for those positions. Principled negotiation finds those interests and focuses on solutions that serve legitimate shared interests and resolve legitimate conflicting interests fairly. Those solutions may include some of the original positions, but by shifting to interests the parties may find better solutions than the positions either first proposed.

The classic illustration is Mary Parker Follett’s story of two men quarreling in a library. One wants the window open. The other wants the window closed. They bicker back and forth, but no compromise position – halfway-open, a few inches open, open only a crack – satisfies both. The librarian asks the first man why he wants the window open. “To get some fresh air,” he says. She asks the second man why he wants the window closed. “I don’t like the draft,” he replies. After thinking for a moment, the librarian suggests opening the window in the next room, allowing fresh air in without a draft. By shifting from positions to interests, she found a better solution than either proposed.

Principled negotiators ask “Why?” and “Why not?” – with both their own and the other party – not as challenges but to better understand the interests beneath the stated positions. The legitimate interests, not the positions, become the framework for any agreement.

3. Invent Options for Mutual Gain. Opening the window in the next room was not an obvious or immediate solution. Brainstorming, both by each party and by the parties together, brings more options into play. Don’t judge options while brainstorming. Prejudging options makes the negotiators less willing to offer novel ideas, and while a novel idea may not be good or practical, mentioning often sparks another idea that could be. Separate “inventing” from “deciding.”

The more options the parties consider, the more likely they can find options that serve both parties’ interests. While not all can be win-win solutions as in the library example, with more options that is more possible. At a minimum, with more options, it’s more likely the parties can find solutions that lose less. If you can’t agree on a final, comprehensive package, look for ways to agree on interim steps, parts of the problem, and a process for finishing the agreement.

And wherever possible, make it easy for the other party to agree. Help develop talking points for them to explain the agreement to their supporters. Share credit for ideas, and be willing to offer credit for an idea if that will help the other party get approval. Again, be “soft on the people, but hard on the problem.”

4. Insist on Using Objective Criteria. Deciding on the basis of will – which side is most stubborn – is costly. Merely that one party demands a given point does not make that point valid. Look for objective criteria to measure the terms of the agreement. Often those criteria will come from the outside, not from either party. Legal standards, building codes, precedents, academic studies, CBO scores, fair market value, and shared moral values are some examples.

Objective criteria must be acceptable to both sides. Propose and insist on fair ways to determine the criteria. Consider variations on “one party chooses how to slice the cake, the other chooses the first slice.” Frame each issue as a joint search for objective criteria. Reason and be open to reason as to which standards are most appropriate and how they should be applied.

Never yield to pressure, but do yield to principle. If the ‘other side’ proposes criteria that are more reasonable than those you offered, accept their criteria. Don’t be bullied into accepting criteria that are unreasonable, or trade one unreasonable demand for another unreasonable demand. The best criteria should lead both parties toward a better solution.


Of course that all sounds nice in the abstract, and you’ve probably already thought of reasons it won’t work in the real world. We’ll discuss those reasons … tomorrow.

Happy Thursday!