Get to Yes.

I recently listened to* Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher, Bruce Patton, and William Ury. (Amazon Link)

A negotiation is a process by which multiple parties with shared and diverging interests come to an agreement. This could be two nations at war, or it could be two friends figuring out where to eat for dinner. At an abstract level, both situations involve multiple parties figuring out how to meet their needs. The skills the authors discuss apply widely.

This is why I think this book is a must-read for everyone. Everyone. Most people, I think, will casually dismiss the domain of negotiation as belonging exclusively to the legal and business communities. But as the authors argue convincingly (but also somewhat briefly – I wish they’d gone further), everything done with more than one person involves negotiation in some sense.

As communications technologies and the zeitgeist is drive organizations to a flatter, more loosely-coupled network of individual agents, effective negotiation becomes ever more important as a personal skill.

I’m so glad I came across the book. Here is my interpretation of the lessons they teach:

The Bogey.

The enemy of the book is “positional bargaining” – the form of negotiation that most of us are familiar with. You want ten, I want twenty, we settle at fifteen. You and I start with a position (a statement of the outcome we desire), and we move along a linear path between the two positions until we find a point somewhere in the middle that is acceptable to both parties. Or – nothing on that “line”** is acceptable and either the two parties give up, or one “wins”.

Because of the narrow range of outcomes, positional bargaining tends to create win/lose scenarios, which in turn breeds those expectations at the outset of a negotiation. Negotiators may go into a discussion really wanting to “win”; others may accept “losing” to preserve the relationship. The authors rightly reject win/lose or lose/win mentalities; if one party walks away from a negotiation feeling like they “lost”, it’s likely the agreement won’t produce a “win” for either party.

The People and the Problem.

The authors repeat, as a mantra “separate the people from the problem”, but I think this is actually fairly inaccurate relative to the substance of their arguments. I would say it’s more accurate to describe their conclusions as “treat the people as an entirely separate problem”.

There are essentially two problems on the table during a negotiation: the central problem of how to satisfy the interests of both parties, and the emotional health of the people and relationships of the negotiating parties. There’s the “problem” and then there’s the “people problem”. The authors do not advocate ignoring the people problem – in fact they argue that it’s critical to spend real time and effort strengthening relationships between the two parties.

Positions and Interests. 

Positions are statements that outline one possible way of meeting the interests of a negotiating party. What’s not important is the specific mix of things in the position; what’s important is that the mix is acceptable.

Positions are usually expressed as a single point in a space of interests – but often they don’t hint at the dimensions in the negotiator’s interest-space (i.e., the things they care about). So look past the expressed positions to get to the underlying interests behind the position.

Understand their interests better than they do. This should be your goal. Not only will you gain serious “people points” by showing that you care about solving their problem, but you will be better equipped to find a mutually advantageous solution.


For example, if you’re dealing with a landlord that wants you to move in quickly, understand why exactly that is – is it because there is a mortgage payment looming, or is it because she’s going away on vacation in a month and won’t be available to handle things while she’s away? The different underlying interests permit different ways of meeting those interests. Get past the positions and understand interests.

The interest space.

It’s likely that both negotiating parties have a very high dimensional interest space, although from the stated positions it may not appear so. After understanding the dimensions of the space you’re working in, “probe” the space by inventing options (“positions” pulled out of thin air) as a way of determining which regions of the interest space are acceptable (i.e. move in in a month and pay more rent vs. move in today and pay less). Make it clear that there are not commitments at this stage.

This is the natural consequence of getting off the “line” of positional bargaining. Once you open up space by looking at the interests behind the stated positions, explore it.


The Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. Every negotiator should go into a negotiation knowing both their own BATNA and the other side’s. Because a negotiator will only accept an agreement that improves on her BATNA, BATNAs are the source of relative strength in a negotiation – not “power” or resources per se. A very powerful company has little leverage over an employee that has received a competitive job offer from someone else.

So understand your own BATNA, and work to improve it, before going in. Also understand their BATNA, and work to worsen it, if you can and need to. Filing suit against the other side is a common way of lowering their BATNA; now their BATNA includes defending themselves against a lawsuit. Improving your own BATNA and impairing the other sides changes the landscape of the negotiation in your favor – perhaps even before it begins.


I hope you will read the book. For me, it was an instant classic. Negotiation is such a common thing in life, it’s shame it’s not taught more widely. 

*yes, I’m a shameless audiobook fan. 

**In my head, I converted pretty much all of their discussion about positional bargaining, issues, etc., into a discussion about the benefits of operating in n-dimensional space as opposed to operating on a line (2d space).