Getting to Yes

Getting to Yes – Negotiating an Agreement without Giving in is written by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton.

This is another book that I borrowed from John Steinhart. It is one of John’s many recommended books on leadership and conflict management. I enjoyed reading the paperback tremendously, but had a lesser experience listening to the audiobook. Perhaps the subject matter is more suitable to be consumed in print than in sound waves. As a comparison, the audiobook The Selfish Gene, read by Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward, was addictive to listen to.

In the authors’ own words: This book is about the method of principled negotiation. The first chapter describes problems that arise in using the standard strategies of positional bargaining. The next four chapters lay out the four principles of the method. The last three chapters answer the questions most commonly asked about the method: What if the other side is more powerful? What if they will not play along? And what if they use dirty tricks?

What is negotiation? It is easier to think what it is not. In my view, it is not a contest of will, for example, whether I am more stubborn than you or vice versa. It is not threatening. By threatening with statement such as “if you do not meet my request, I would do X just to spite you”, you only show how fragile and insensible you are. At the receiving end, no one should give in to threats like that, unless the concession to be made is of no consequence to others and we do not want to waste any more breath with the other party. I also think it is wrong to have a specific and fixed goal prior to the negotiation. With an unshakable target in mind, you might turn deaf to the other party’s reasoning and stop seeking other potentially better options. Negotiation is a dialogue. The more challenging the underlying conflict, the better to have this dialogue in person, side by side. Ask questions and listen to others’ perspectives, seek understanding of what matters most to them. Finally, before heading into a conflict and negotiation, there is always the question whether it is worth it.

In the authors’ words: Negotiation is back-and-forth communication designed to reach an agreement when you and the other side have some interests that are shared and others that are opposed (as well as some that may simply be different).

This book is centered at principled negotiation and I list four methods to achieve that below. As usual, texts in italic are quoted from the book, the rest is my thought based on reading the book.

  • Separate the people from the problem

Every negotiator has two kinds of interest: in the substance and in the relationship…The relationship tends to become entangled with the problem…Positional bargaining puts relationship and substance in conflict…Dealing with a substantive problem and maintaining a good working relationship need not be conflicting goals if the parties are committed and psychologically prepared to treat each separately on its own legitimate merits. Base the relationship on mutually understood perceptions, clear two-way communication, expressing emotions without blame, and a forward-looking, purposive outlook. Deal with people problems by changing how you treat people; don’t try to solve them with substantive concessions.

  • Focus on interests, not positions.  

The basic problem in a negotiation lies not in conflicting positions, but in the conflict between each side’s needs, desires, concerns, and fears….Behind opposed positions lie shared and compatible interests, as well as conflicting ones….How do you identify interests? One basic technique is to put yourself in their shoes. Examine each position they take, and ask yourself “Why?”… Ask “Why not?” Think about their choice. One of the most useful ways to uncover interests is first to identify the basic decision that those on the other side probably see you asking them for, and then to ask  yourself why they have not made that decision. What interests of theirs stand in the way? If you are trying to change their minds, the starting point is to figure out where their minds are now.

  • Invent options for mutual gains

This method calls for being creative in coming up with potential solutions. Neither of the two negotiating parties has to lock into certain positions. By examining both conflicting and shared interests, being open-minded without forming premature judgement helps to search for new options that might satisfy the interests of both parties. Do not think that solving their problem is their problem. In a negotiation, the problem is affecting both parties. It pays to invent ways to make the counterparty’s decision making process easier.

  • Insist on using objective criteria

Principled negotiation produces wise agreements amicably and efficiently. The more you bring standards of fairness, efficiency, or scientific merit to bear on your particular problem, the more likely you are to produce a final package that is wise and fair. The more you and the other side refer to precedent and community practice, the greater your chance of benefiting from past experience. And an agreement consistent with precedent is less vulnerable to attack…Three basic points to remember: 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, only to principle.

The vast majority of workplace conflicts are small-scale and are usually caused by misunderstanding, particularly when the communication skills, culture and personal backgrounds vary drastically. We should refrain from sending emails or messages when the recipients are reachable in person. In the absence of face-to-face discussions, video calls are better than phone calls, which in turn are better than emails for dealing with conflicts. An extension, but not far-fetching: life is much better without being the slave of e-communication. Finally, I also think it is important to know that not all negotiation will result in win-win solutions. It is perfectly fine to agree that we disagree with each other with mutual respect intact.

I end this article with a few more interesting points of view from the book:

A great need for negotiation based on a joint search for mutual gains and legitimate standards.

Conflict remains, as we have noted, a growth industry. Indeed, the advent of the negotiation revolution has brought more conflict, not less. Hierarchies tend to bottle up conflict, which comes out into the open as hierarchies give way to networks. Democracies surface rather suppress conflicts, which is why democracies often seem so quarrelsome and turbulent when compared with more authoritarian societies.

The goal cannot and should not be to eliminate conflict. Conflict is an inevitable – and useful – part of life. It often leads to change and generates insight. Few injustices are addressed without serious conflict. In the form of business competition, conflict helps create prosperity. And it lies at the heart of the democratic process, where the best decisions result not from a superficial consensus but from exploring different points of view and searching for creative solutions. Strange as it may seem, the world needs more conflict, not less.

The challenge is not to eliminate conflict but to transform it. It is to change the way we deal with our differences – from destructive, adversarial battling to hard-headed, side-by-side problem solving.

Like it or not, you are a negotiator. Negotiation is a fact of life.

People find themselves in a dilemma. They see two ways to negotiate: soft or hard. The soft negotiator wants to avoid personal conflict and so makes concessions readily to reach agreement. He or she wants an amicable resolution; yet often ends up exploited and feeling bitter. The hard negotiator sees any situation as a contest of wills in which the side that takes the more extreme positions and holds out longer fares better. He or she wants to win; yet often ends up producing an equally hard response that exhausts the negotiator and his or her resources and harms the relationship with the other side. Other standard negotiating strategies fall between hard and soft, but each involves an attempted trade-off between getting what you want and getting along with people.

The (principled negotiation) method applies whether the other side is more experienced or less, a hard bargainer or a friendly one. Principled negotiation is an all-purpose strategy. Unlike almost all other strategies, if the other side learns this one, it does not become more difficult to use; it becomes easier. If they read this book, all the better.

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