“Getting to Yes”, Roger Fisher and William Ury: Principled Bargaining

the book cover of getting to yes roger fisher william ury principled bargainingI decided to read Roger Fisher’s and William Ury’s Getting to Yes because 2011 presented me with two of the weightiest negotiations of my life. Of course, negotiation is nothing new to me nor to anyone. Whether asking for lower prices at a Fringe show, talking one’s way out of a tricky situation, or discussing whether making out is the rational course of action, negotiation is commonplace. Last year, however, I found myself in two situations negotiating over relatively large sums of money, with parties that were a fair bit less amicable than I would have liked. While each of these arguments resolved itself at least satisfactorily, if not wisely, I realised that even if I were correct, I could still do more both to make the other party feel understood and to support an ideal outcome. I could be technically better at negotiating. This is where Getting to Yes comes in, kindly gifted to me by one Kelly Mackenzie.

Getting to Yes explains how to “negotiate an agreement without giving in”. The authors’ thesis is that most bargaining is positional. Each side takes a position or makes an offer, and the context of the negotiation is simply wearing one another down through mutual compromise. Haggling is the classic example of this. The authors prefer what they call principled bargaining. This is bargaining aimed at finding a ‘wise agreement’ (one in which both parties’ interests are met as well as possible). It differs from positional bargaining due to four key suggestions: (1) separate the people from the problem, (2) focus on interests, not positions, (3) generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do, (4) insist that the result be based on some objective standard.

Getting to Yes with principled bargaining

Separating people from the problem is a sensible and powerful idea. Negotiators, naturally, “are people first”.Their judgement is influenced by non-rational factors: they may have their pride at stake, or be determined to ‘get revenge’. Separating these personal issues and addressing them independently of the problem itself makes it possible for them to also be considered important and resolved along with the issue at hand. In politics, for example, it is certainly heard of for a party to oppose a policy proposed by others simply because, although they agree with it, they wanted to be the ones to announce it and carry it off. In this case, and similar cases, ordinary old positional bargaining won’t help, because it doesn’t allow negotiators to take in to account personal interests. Viva la principled bargaining!

participants in Adelaide's world naked bike ride are confronting a clothed police officer. It illustrates how sometimes 'getting to yes' isn't as simple as we'd like!

Sometimes the problem is clothing, in which case separation can lead to another problem, this time with the police.

“Focus on interests, not positions” is my favourite concept, and one that you can begin applying immediately. Indeed, I first read these four precepts while studying a course on activism at Southern Cross University and, without any further context, began trying to do as point 2 suggests. The idea is that one you take a position you become attached to it and it becomes hard to change, even if it isn’t the best way of meeting your interests. Further, exploring interests allows common ground to be established more readily, and it makes it more likely that the eventual positions are more sensible. If we consider the example of my seeking property compensation after a vehicle collision, positional bargaining would see me say “How about $1300?” and them say “How about $800?” and the two of us working it out from there. Principled bargaining would have me say, “So my interests in this negotiation are to have this resolved promptly, to have enough to replace my bike with an equivalent model, and to avoid going through judicial channels.” By doing this I make it easier for the other negotiator to devise a position that meets both our needs; I also establish common interests, particularly the former and the latter of the three. Once this approach is taken, the two negotiators are no longer opponents, but collaborators working together to meet one another’s needs as well as possible.

Let’s imagine that a group of friends is going camping and is trying to work out how to arrange food and associated expenses. Positional bargaining would have a position be stated early: “Let’s just each pay our own way”. Urgh. Principled bargaining would involve a prior discussion of interests: people could talk about budgets, their interests in nutrition, thoughts about weight, thoughts about packaging. Then the group would begin to generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do. Having a range of options avoids the trap of anybody getting trapped in to a position.

Creating the space to think more broadly about how to meet interests can also allow for creative proposals that are better than more obvious ones. So let’s consider our friends. Paying individually or going shopping as a group and splitting the bill are probably the two obvious opportunities; taking the time to ‘generate a variety of possibilities’ might bring up ideas such as devising and agreeing upon a group budget before shopping, taking appetites in to account, splitting in to multiple food-purchasing groups, or sharing certain things but not others. Generating a variety of options allows interests to be explored without positions being adhered to, and can often result in a creative solution that meets everybody’s interests wisely.

If all else fails, a katana is an effective negotiator.

Finally, insist that the result be based on some objective standard. This comes intuitively in many cases: when I was negotiating over bicycle compensation, I didn’t invent a figure. I got quotes from two repairers. The benefit of this is it tends towards a wise agreement, as the ideas can be evaluated according to objective, external metrics. It also makes it easier to deal with personal issues, as somebody can modify their position without losing face. In all cases the aim is to validate a potential position by showing that it is not arbitrary but based on principle.

That wraps it up for the main principles, but there is another idea I enjoy: the BATNA, or ‘best alternative to a negotiated agreement‘. This is the course of action you will take if agreement cannot be reached. If your BATNA is better than the proposed agreement, you disagree. If it is worse, you agree. If you have a bad BATNA, you avoid revealing this; if your BATNA rocks, you might want to make that explicit. Similarly, it’s worth understanding the other party’s BATNA: if they have good alternatives, it weakens your position.

In the context of my bicycle incident, I had a good BATNA: if the lady didn’t negotiate an agreement with me, I had free legal advice. We eventually reached an agreement once the legal advice came in to play, the BATNA at that point for me probably wasn’t legal action. If I went through this again, I’d have the knowledge to make my BATNA much clearer: “I have got two objective quotes that indicate it will cost this much to repair my bike and I’d like to agree to this. My alternative, if you don’t, is to seek legal advice. I think it is likely in that case that you will end up paying the same amount, however it will waste both of our time, cause more distress, and you may face legal costs.” I could also consider the BATNA of the other negotiator: she obviously thought she was better off disagreeing with me. She was wrong. In all cases, knowing your BATNA and considering the others’ BATNA gives you a better range of options and strategy for pursuing the negotiation.

Negotiation is part of the day-to-day of human existence, and being able to take a principled approach can improve negotiation both in terms of substantive outcomes and the relationships involvedGetting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and William Ury, is a great introduction to how one can improve negotiation skills. By separating the people from the problem, focusing on interests, not positions, generating a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do, and insisting that the result be based on some objective standard, as well as considering one’s BATNA, principled bargaining makes it possible to increase the likelihood of arriving at an agreement that satisfies negotiating parties’ needs wisely.


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