As President Obama and Speaker Boehner continue their budget negotiations, we should ask how well each has explained and understood the principles behind their positions. (More)

Getting to Yes Again, Part I: Positions vs. Principles

This week Morning Feature revisits 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 budget negotiations 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.

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:

  • Wise Agreement – the negotiation should yield an agreement 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.
  • Efficient – the negotiation process should take as little time, cost as few resources, and cause as little harm as are necessary to yield a wise agreement, if such an agreement is possible.
  • Relationship Building – the negotiation process 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 the sum of those positions would not constitute a wise agreement. “Standing firm” and “driving a hard bargain” matter more than solving the problem.

It’s also inefficient, as declared 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? The longer it takes, the more it costs, and the greater the fallout, the more the positional bargainer believes he “fought as hard as he could.”

Finally, positional bargaining rewards ruthlessness and power. Given equal power, the harder (tougher) bargainer will win. Given equally hard bargainers, the party with more power will win. The winner often walks away smug, the loser bitter, and both angry and looking to blame the other for any damage caused in the process.

There must be a better, more progressive way. And there is.

The Method – Principled Negotiation

Principled negotiation is built around four key ideas:

  • 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 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. But there is an important caveat. In a democracy, private negotiations must at some point give way to public debate, and that should happen before a decision is finalized.

  • 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.

The final agreement may include some of the original positions, or it may not. By shifting the focus to the parties’ interests, negotiators may sometimes find solutions that neither party had considered and that serve their interests better than the positions each offered.

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.

  • Invent Options for Mutual Gain – Opening the window in the next room was not an obvious or immediate solution. Brainstorming, both by each party while preparing for the negotiation and by the parties together during negotiations, brings more options into play.

Brainstorming is a skill all its own, and one of the keys is not to judge ideas during the brainstorming process itself. Critical judgment often makes people more reluctant to offer novel ideas, and while an idea may not be good or practical, it may spark another idea that could be. Separate “inventing” from “deciding.”

Although too many options on the table can yield the “paralysis of analysis,” that is less common than the problem of considering too few options. While not every problem has win-win solutions like the library example, bringing in more options usually makes that more possible, or at least allows the parties to 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.”

  • Insist on Objective Criteria – Deciding on the basis of stubbornness is often costly. An unyielding demand for a given position 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.

All of that sounds nice in the abstract, but tomorrow we’ll see why this is often very difficult to practice in Realworldia.


Happy Thursday!