Do principled negotiation and fairness always work? What about the people, the tactics, and the power? Was the debt ceiling bill a principled agreement? (More)

Getting to Yes, Part III – Does It Work, Really? (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looked at the classic Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton of the Harvard Negotiation Project. Thursday we looked at the problem of positional bargaining and the method of principled negotiation. Yesterday we considered the most common objections to principled negotiation. Today we respond to common questions and review the debt ceiling deal through the lens of principled negotiation.

Getting to Yes was first published in 1977. Since then, the authors have given thousands of lectures and seminars, and fielded countless questions about the details and value of principled negotiation. In the third edition, they review the ten most common questions, broken into four groups:

Fairness and Principled Negotiation

1. Does positional bargaining ever make sense? While principled negotiations are usually more efficient once the parties meet, principled negotiation requires more preparation time. Before you meet the other party you must clarify your own interests, brainstorm possible options, research possible objective criteria, and identify and develop your BATNA – Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. If you already know the other party, you may also want to estimate their interests and their BATNA, and roleplay key points. That’s a lot of time to invest, and depending on the negotiation it may not be worthwhile.

The authors suggest you consider whether it’s important to avoid an arbitrary outcome, the complexity of the issues, the importance of maintaining a good working relationship, the other party’s expectations and willingness to change, and where you are in the negotiating process. In a one-time encounter over a simple issue where an arbitrary outcome will not bother you – such as buying a used DVD at a flea market – positional bargaining may be fine. It may also be useful in the closing stages, after you have developed the parties’ interests, options, and objective criteria through principled negotiation.

2. What if the other side believes in a different standard of fairness? You may not be able to agree on objective criteria. Explore why each party proposed their standards. Is the difference grounded in values, culture, experience, and/or perceptions? Resolve differing criteria as best you can through principled negotiation. After that, consider trading off, inviting an arbitrator, or some other fair process to decide the remaining criteria.

3. Should I be fair if I don’t have to be? Sometimes you can get an agreement than is unfairly good for you. Should you take it? Weigh the risks. Will the agreement be durable, or will the other party renege once they realize what happened? Is this a final deal, or a preliminary draft whose unfairness will harm the rest of the negotiation? Will this unfair deal damage this relationship or your other relationships? Trust and a reputation for fairness make it easier to negotiate; how much of that will you give up? And what about your conscience?

Dealing with People

4. What do I do if the people are the problem? The principle of separating the people from the problem does not mean sweeping people problems under the rug. Rather, it means: (a) don’t offer substantive concessions to build a relationship; and, (b) don’t try to coerce a substantive agreement by threatening the relationship. Instead, build a working relationship independent of the substantive agreement or disagreement. You may need to negotiate the relationship, just as you negotiate the process of negotiation, or the substantive issues themselves. Distinguish how you treat them from how they treat you. Don’t emulate unprincipled behavior; model principled behavior. Deal rationally with apparent irrationality, and question your presumption that they are being irrational. They may have interests you don’t yet understand.

5. Should I negotiate with terrorists, or even someone like Hitler? When does it make sense not to negotiate? Unless your BATNA is better than any agreement you could possibly reach, you should negotiate. Even with terrorists. Even with someone like Hitler. ‘Self-help’ strategies are often more costly and less reliable than we think. Identify and develop the strongest BATNA you can, but be wary of overestimating it.

6. How should I adjust my negotiating approach to account for differences of personality, gender, culture, and so on? Be sensitive to these factors, but  be wary of stereotypes. Don’t assume the individual person you’re negotiating with is just like That Group. “Get in step” by noticing and respecting his/her values, perceptions, concerns, and norms, such as: pace of speech and pace of the process overall, level of formality, proximity while talking, bluntness or indirectness of communication, scope of working relationship (business-only or broader), and the time-frame and rigidity or flexibility of commitments. You don’t have to agree, but you must be aware of the differences. Negotiate personal or cultural differences that may impact the larger negotiation process.

Questions about Tactics

7. How do I decide things like where to meet or how to communicate? There are no fixed guidelines. Consider the options available, and their strengths and weaknesses. Will one or the other party’s office be acceptable, or will you need a conference room? Would it be better to get away from offices – and onlookers – perhaps at a private residence or other discreet location? Can you do some of the negotiation by phone, email, or teleconference, and how does each affect understanding and trust?

8. How do I move from inventing options to making commitments? While there are no fixed rules on how and when to begin closing a deal, the authors offer guidelines. Think about closure when you prepare for negotiations. What would a successful agreement look like? What issues will you need to resolve. How might you and the other party justify the agreement with your and their constituents? It may be worthwhile to craft a framework agreement that outlines the issues, proposes options on issues where you have shared interests and accepted standards, and leaves blanks on issues where your interests or standards differ. If you are confident both sides have “done their homework,” it may be useful for one or both parties to propose an initial offer early in the process. Otherwise, it’s better to explore interests, options, and objective criteria before any offer is proposed. Your initial offer should be the most favorable agreement that you think would make sense for both sides, given your preparation and negotiations thus far. Be firm about your interests, but not rigid on options. Consider an interim agreement that works for both of you on the issues where you can agree, and proposes a process for resolving the rest. If neither of you can offer an agreement better than the others’ BATNA – if no principled agreement is possible – agree to disagree … respectfully.

9. How do I try principled negotiation without taking too much risk? Start small, with negotiations where the stakes are low, you have a good BATNA, objective criteria are available and relevant, and the other party is likely to be amenable to principled negotiation. As you gain experience and confidence, begin using principled negotiation in more challenging contexts. Take the time to prepare the negotiation, and plan for how to build and maintain a good working relationship.


10. Can the way I negotiate really make a difference if the other side is more powerful, and how do I enhance my negotiating power? Yes, principled negotiation can make a difference, within reasonable limits. Principled negotiation cannot guarantee that you get everything you want. Jedi mind tricks only work in Star Wars. The preparation and process of principled negotiation will help you understand whether a satisfactory agreement is possible, and if not, why not. “Who is more powerful?” usually leads to either arrogance or discouragement. Instead, consider and develop your sources of negotiating power. Your BATNA is a source of negotiating power, as are your ability to separate the people from the problem, communicate well, build relationships, understand interests, invent options for mutual gain, and develop objective criteria for weighing those options. Finally, there is power in your ability to carefully craft a commitment, what you will do or will not do. If their offer is worse than your BATNA, you may need to explain that you will pursue other alternatives unless they improve their offer. If your offer is already fair and better than the other party’s BATNA, you may need to say that you cannot or will not offer more. Be willing to clarify what you want the other party to do, and to ask what the other party wants you to do. Once you clarify the desired actions, you may find the offer contains extraneous or contradictory terms that only block agreement.

Was the Debt Ceiling Deal a Principled Negotiation?

So far, no. So far, the negotiations were about as ugly as negotiations can get. But we should note that the debt ceiling bill President Obama signed Tuesday was not a final agreement. It was an interim agreement, partly on substance and partly on the procedures for the rest of the process. While the substantive deal was grim by progressive standards, the procedural deal was much stronger:

  • It strengthened the Democrats’ BATNA. Default is off the table, as are benefit cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and programs for veterans and the poor. If Republicans in the joint committee demand such cuts, Democrats can refuse to agree and let the triggers kick in instead.
  • It weakened extreme conservatives’ influence. If seven of the twelve members of the joint committee agree on a proposal, that proposal must get an up-or-down vote in the Senate and House, without amendment or filibuster. Senate Democrats have enough votes to pass good proposals and block bad proposals, if their caucus holds together. House Democrats can get within 25 votes of passing good proposals, if their caucus holds together. Thus, Tea Party extremists are now irrelevant.

I’m not celebrating yet. But this agreement may well result in a budget deal worth celebrating … and that is far more likely than it seemed a week ago.


Happy Saturday!