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Getting to yes - Book Review

1 March 2017
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

"Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement Without Giving In" is a book by Roger Fisher and William Ury, renowned experts from Harvard University and the founders and directors of the university's negotiation project. The book, presented with humility, offers guidance on various aspects—some of which we might have intuited, some we might have already put into practice, and some we might have observed in others. Whether it reinforces our existing knowledge, sharpens our skills, or introduces innovation, it unquestionably does so in a structured and instructive manner.


It's worth noting that negotiation is a pervasive activity in our daily lives, occurring in a wide range of contexts that extend beyond our initial perception.


The book explores the following key topics:
  1. Identifying Needs

  2. Separating People from the Problem

  3. Focusing on Interests, Not Attitudes

  4. Developing Alternatives to Take Action

  5. Employing Objective Criteria

  6. Offering Practical Tips

The book provides numerous examples, and despite its original publication date in 1981, it has been updated with recent examples, ensuring that there is always something valuable to glean from a thorough reading. It comes highly recommended.


Identifying Needs

Why is a structured negotiation method necessary? To begin with, negotiations are pervasive; individuals and groups often have conflicting desires and do not always reach mutually acceptable agreements. In recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in conflict situations, with more people seeking to exert influence and intervene in decisions that directly affect them.


A proficient negotiation method should meet three essential criteria:

  1.  It should facilitate the creation of intelligent agreements when agreement is achievable.

  2. It must be resource-efficient regarding the investments required to reach an agreement.

  3. Ideally, it should enhance or not harm the relationships among the parties involved.


Negotiations, sometimes occurring unnoticed, consist of two fundamental components: a discourse regarding the negotiation process and its associated rules and the actual negotiations aimed at achieving the desired agreement.


The authors approach negotiations as a process that involves two or more participants working together to solve a problem. The goal is to reach an efficient and amicable resolution, employing a combination of both "hard" and "soft" tactics (being firm on the problem while maintaining a gentle approach with the people involved). Additionally, a fundamental principle is the importance of the process itself. Negotiations are a continuous phenomenon, constantly evolving.


Separating People from the Problem

Negotiations involve interactions among individuals, sometimes representing themselves and other times representing groups or organizations. However, at their core, all participants are individuals with emotions, including anger, frustration, fear, and ego. These emotions can intensify when one feels incapable of achieving their desired outcome or believes that the other party is gaining more than they deserve. In conflict situations, individuals involved in litigation have two sets of interests: those related to the substance of the dispute and those concerning the interpersonal relationships involved. The natural tendency is to conflate the person across the table with the legal matter, blurring the lines between the dispute and the relationship. By its very nature, litigation revolves around disagreements and can lead individuals to take these disputes personally, heightening their emotions and thus exacerbating obstinacy and discord. This cycle can perpetuate feelings of offense, anger, and so on.


Recommendations for effectively managing such situations include:

  1.  Separating People from the Problem:

    1. Practice empathy by imagining yourself in their position.

    2. Avoid making assumptions about their intentions based on your concerns.

    3. Refrain from blaming them for your problems.

    4. Address differences in perceptions openly.

    5. Act in ways that illustrate the disparity between their perceptions of you and your actual behavior.

    6. Engage them in the negotiation process rather than focusing solely on the result.

    7. Propose solutions that allow them to exit the process with dignity intact.

  2. Handling Emotions:

    1. Recognize both their feelings and your own during the process.

    2. Pay close attention to fundamental concerns such as independence, recognition, belonging, meaning, and status.

    3. Consider the identity they strive to maintain and avoid threatening it (e.g., "I'm a competent manager...").

    4. Promote open discussions about emotions.

    5. Provide opportunities for the expression of emotions.

    6. Utilize non-verbal gestures effectively.

  3. Effective Communication:

    1. Actively listen to the other party and allow them to express themselves.

    2. Speak clearly and articulately.

    3. Represent your perspective rather than assuming theirs.

    4. Thoughtfully consider their statements and ponder their intentions.


By implementing these strategies, negotiations can become more constructive, with a heightened focus on addressing the issues while preserving positive relationships.


Focusing on Interests, Not Attitudes

The optimal approach to defining a problem involves examining the diverging interests among the parties involved. When individuals or groups hold differing positions, these positions are rooted in underlying interests, some of which may align while others may conflict. One of the most well-known examples involves two people sharing an orange, only to realize, after a prolonged process, that one desires the juice while the other values the peel.


How can you pinpoint both sides' underlying interests that serve as the foundation of their disagreement? Here are some methods:

  1. Inquire "Why?" - This questioning technique helps reveal motives. You can directly ask the other party or engage in hypothetical scenarios by posing questions like, "Why not?"

  2. Recognize that each side has multiple interests - The most critical interests often revolve around fundamental needs, such as security, financial well-being, a sense of belonging, recognition, and control over one's life.

  3. Compile a comprehensive list of both parties' interests - Prepare an exhaustive inventory of the goods held by both sides.

  4. Delve into the parties' interests through discussion - Prioritize addressing these needs before presenting potential solutions.

  5. Explore the potential for an interest-based solution - While concentrating on the future rather than dwelling on the past, strive to determine if a solution aligned with the parties' interests can be achieved.


By applying these techniques, you can effectively uncover and address the underlying interests, paving the way for more constructive problem-solving and potential resolutions.


Developing Alternatives to Take Action

Formulating and even "inventing" various alternative solutions forms the cornerstone for achieving an optimal resolution. However, many individuals encounter challenges in this endeavor, often for a variety of reasons:

  1.  Prejudice

  2. Pursuit of the Ultimate Single Solution

  3. Assumption of a Zero-Sum Game (the belief that one party must lose for the other to gain)

  4. Hypothesis of Non-responsibility (the idea that it is solely the other party's responsibility to solve the issues at hand).


A structured approach to developing alternatives:

  1. Understanding the Distinction between Alternatives and Final Decisions - Acknowledge that proposing an alternative does not imply acceptance. To prevent misinterpretation, simultaneously present two contrasting offers: a low offer and a high one.

  2. Viewing Alternative Development as Brainstorming - The process of generating alternatives involves brainstorming. This can be undertaken individually, collaboratively, or with the guidance of a mediator. Generate a wide array of ideas, as one idea often triggers another. Consider the perspective of experts or view things from their standpoint to generate additional alternatives. Seek common interests as a foundation for creating options, recognizing that differences in people's interests can provide the basis for a mutually advantageous solution.

  3. Selection of the Most Relevant Alternatives - Identify the most pertinent alternatives and transform them into practical proposals.

  4. Facilitating Decision-Making for the Other Party - Ensure that the other party can readily decide on the proposal from their perspective. This expedites the process and enhances the likelihood of success.


Individual differences can result in alternative solutions influenced by various factors, including:

  • Beliefs

  • Timelines (some prioritize immediate benefits while others focus on the future)

  • Core Values

  • Risk Tolerance (some prefer a secure solution, while others are open to taking risks)


By acknowledging these differences and applying the structured approach outlined above, parties can navigate alternative development more effectively, paving the way for mutually beneficial resolutions.


Employing Objective Criteria

Discussions often revolve around a single factor, such as price. However, a singular focus on one aspect can often hinder the attainment of an agreement. In such cases, having an objective criterion can prove invaluable in facilitating consensus.


Objective criteria may find their basis in the following:

  • Universally acknowledged standards can encompass market value, scientific judgment, cost calculations, recognized moral standards, and more.

  • An equitable process leads to a principle that states when there is no predefined criterion, but a systematic and mutually agreed-upon procedure exists for arriving at a fair decision; it can serve as an objective criterion for the decision-making process.


How can you put this idea into practice?

  1. Start by clearly delineating the issues where seeking an objective criterion is appropriate.

  2. Engage in discussions to explore potential methods of establishing such a criterion (as mentioned in the previous paragraph).

  3. Collaboratively agree upon the criterion or procedure. In pursuing an agreement, thoroughly examine the rationales and motivations involved and remain open to the other party's perspectives.

  4. Importantly, it avoids undue pressure on the other party to reach an agreement.

By following these steps, parties involved in negotiations can effectively integrate objective criteria into their discussions, thereby enhancing the prospects of achieving mutually satisfactory agreements. 


Offering Practical Tips

The other party may sometimes need to be more cooperative despite employing various negotiation methods. In such situations, it's essential to adapt and apply specific strategies based on the nature of the problem. When there's an imbalance of power, and the other side takes advantage of it, consider the following tips:

  1. Identify Your Best Alternative - Safeguard yourself by recognizing the most favorable alternative if the agreement fails to materialize. This alternative always exists and is critical for setting boundaries. It helps you determine the acceptable limits. Understanding this best alternative also provides insight into maximizing your existing assets within the current circumstances, even if it means not reaching an agreement. Knowing this alternative can boost your self-confidence in dealing with the other party.

  2. Promote Cooperation - If the other party is unwilling to negotiate, explore options such as highlighting the value of negotiations and the mutual benefits they can bring. You can also employ negotiation tactics, like inquiring about their motives, calculations, or guiding principles. Discuss the significance of their positions and ask probing questions. Additionally, creating uncomfortable silences during the conversation may prompt the other party to speak up or reconsider their stance. If these approaches prove ineffective, consider proposing a third-party mediator.

  3. Addressing Unethical Tactics - In cases where the other side employs unethical negotiation tactics, these can be classified into three groups: deliberate deception, psychological manipulation, and pressure or threat tactics. 

In response to these challenges, a uniform recommended course of action is advised, which the authors demonstrate can apply to various problem types:

  1.  Acknowledge the Situation - Recognize the existing circumstances.

  2. Engage in Open Communication - Address the issue directly, bringing it "to the table." Tailor your communication style to suit the context.

  3. Transition to Discussing Negotiation Rules - Shift the discussion toward negotiation procedures rather than the outcome. This approach may pave the way for a return to fair negotiations. Refuse to engage in negotiations as long as the process remains unfair.


In summary, the book doesn't claim to introduce groundbreaking concepts but aims to construct a systematic approach. It offers a structured procedure designed to yield favorable outcomes: intelligent agreements and efficient processes, all while preserving or improving relations between the parties. I highly recommend it.

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