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Home » Getting to Yes
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Getting to Yes

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It’s the title of a book that was first published in 1981 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin) and is still useful today: Getting to Yes. The authors—Roger Fisher and William Ury—were leaders of the Harvard Negotiation Project and were called upon internationally to advise and coach people negotiating disagreements in every sort of conflict, from the personal (marriage, parent/child) to the institutional (diplomats and leaders of corporations). In the Church, we usually call this kind of activity “mediation,” and we often hire an outside professional to come into a situation and assess what can be done: There’s already a dispute which has come to a point of intransigence; the mediator intervenes in order to bring peace. “Negotiation,” on the other hand, is more a discussion aimed at reaching mutually agreeable terms before there is a dispute. That’s not a perfect distinction, but the methods put forward by Fisher and Ury, which I first read in the 1980s, seem valuable in an almost timeless way. Here are some principles put forward in the book.

Separate the people from the problem.

This principle may appear easy to some, yet it requires us to refrain from the “blame game.” “Who called this meeting?” “Who put that sign on the door?” “Who took my salad out of the refrigerator?” The questions themselves are morally neutral, but the questioner is usually ready to point a finger. Negotiators are people first, with emotions; deeply held values; different backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints. When we can separate the human factor from whatever is amiss, negotiations can occur, focusing on a mutually agreeable outcome.

Focus on interests, not positions.

Taking or defending a predetermined stand on a particular issue works against being open to considering what another person’s interests might be. Yet behind opposed positions lie shared and compatible interests as well as conflicting ones. What common interests might we have that can allow the building of a relationship? “Oh, you’re a Yankees’ fan? I got my vaccination at Yankee Stadium!”

 Invent options for mutual gain.

This principle asks negotiators to think in terms of win-win. After negotiations, each person involved should be able to get up from the proverbial table with something they feel good about, something they’ve achieved. Too frequently we are inclined to think in terms of a fixed pie or a single solution, when some brainstorming (without judging) to broaden the options on the table will open things up.

Insist on using objective criteria.

As Fisher and Ury point out, there are inevitable situations in which opposing interests appear to block negotiations. The landlord wants to raise the rent. The tenant wants the rent reduced. If objective criteria are agreed upon at the beginning of the negotiations, a path forward can emerge. The following are offered as possible objective criteria: market value, precedent, scientific judgment, professional standards, efficiency, costs, what a court would decide, moral standards, equal treatment, tradition, reciprocity, etc.

Of course, Getting to Yes builds on the assumed foundation that participants want to do that! Cynics will say that’s an unwise assumption in today’s world—yet I will continue to believe that deep inside every human being there is always a desire to get to Yes!