Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement Without Giving In (1981) by Roger Fisher et al. is a best-selling manual used in everything from marriage counseling to international negotiations.
Citing examples of all sorts of conflicts, the authors build the case that there’s a far greater chance of agreeable resolutions when parties aren’t bogged down in intractable positions. The tome helps highlight how the commerce of relationships is rarely ever simple and hardly ever so fair.
Behind opposed positions lie shared and compatible interests, as well as conflicting ones. We tend to assume that because the other side’s positions are opposed to ours, their interests must also be opposed. If we have an interest in defending ourselves, then they must want to attack us. If we have an interest in minimizing the rent, then their interest must be to maximize it. In many negotiations, however, a close examination of the underlying interests will reveal the existence of many more interests that are shared or compatible than ones that are opposed.
The book has its roots in the Harvard Negotiation Project. This interdisciplinary consortium started when Harvard realized that students from such faculties as law and business were ill-equipped to tackle conflicts effectively.
Negotiation Need Not Be a Zero-Sum Game
At its core, Getting to Yes focuses on what the authors call “principled negotiation”—it’s emphasizing what’s essential to you and why. In contrast, “position negotiation” is merely making demands and offering concessions until a compromise is reached. When you clarify why something is important to you and heed why things are essential to the other party, myriad solutions in your interests and theirs present themselves.
In traditional position-versus-position bargaining, the other must lose if you have to win and vice versa. With principled negotiation, you cultivate a supportive approach, “work side by side, and attack the problem, not each other.” Rather than stake out unwavering positions, you explore all possible “options for mutual gain” and present the other side with “yesable” propositions.
Separate the People from the Problem
To focus on underlying interests, the parties should try to get inside each other’s heads and consider the emotions involved—the desire for security or a fear of losing status, for example. “The ability to see the situation as the other side sees it, as difficult as that may be, is one of the most important skills a negotiator can possess.”
An illustrative anecdote cites President Nasser of Egypt being interviewed in 1970. His negotiating position was that Israel must pull its troops out “from every inch of Arab territory,” with no Arab obligation in return. The interviewer switches from positions to interests by prompting Nasser to consider what would happen to Prime Minister Golda Meir if she went on Israeli TV to reveal such a capitulation. Nasser bursts out laughing: “Oh, would she have trouble at home!” His compassion for Meir’s public perception transcends one of the most intractable geopolitical crises of our times.
Recommendation: The Best Little Book on Win-Win Negotiations
Must-read Getting to Yes (1981; reissued 2011.) It’ll change your general conception of negotiation by showing you how to benefit by seeing the world in terms of mutually beneficial transactions. This simple-but-practical guide to negotiations is full of useful tips on negotiating effectively without giving in or jeopardizing your relationship with the other party.
Any method of negotiation may be fairly judged by three criteria: It should produce a wise agreement if agreement is possible. It should be efficient. And it should improve or at least not damage the relationship between the parties.
Some of the book’s techniques seem naive, and the authors tend to oversimplify bargaining positions. Moreover, not all conflicts can be solved as discrete judgment-based conciliations without having one party benefit only at significant cost to the other. Nonetheless, Getting to Yes teaches helpful lessons on understanding oneself and others, compromising, and searching for “win-win-win” solutions.
Idea for Impact: To persuade, focus on fairness and mutual interest, not on insisting on bargaining positions and winning the contest of will.