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Roger Fisher on a Better Way to Negotiate, Part 1

“Peace is not a piece of paper,
but a way of dealing with conflict when it arises.”

— Roger Fisher

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(Don’t want to read online? Purchase a sexy PDF of the two-part series for only $3.99.)

Why are most negotiations so awful? Why do we go into them ready to defend our turf to the death, only to find that our opponent is doing the same? Roger Fisher argues that this is a natural outcome, but one that we need to learn to avoid if we’re going to get things done and maintain good relationships in life. His bestseller Getting to Yes shows the way.

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Fisher graduated from the Harvard Law School in 1948, in the same class as Charlie Munger, and by 1958 he was a full-time professor. Over a long career specializing in high-stakes negotiation, Fisher played a role in the outcome of the Camp David Accords, the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, and the apartheid negotiations in South Africa, among other events. He operated at the highest level. (We’ve covered his ideas on giving better feedback before.)

In 1981, Fisher released his magnum opus, Getting to Yes, a short treatise on negotiating in a different way. Fisher recognized that the contentious, heels-dug-in style of most negotiators failed because it either failed to get results, or if it did, destroyed a relationship in the process. He asked the simple question: If being a hard-ass is one style and being a softie is another, is there a third, better style?

Yes there is, and Fisher called it Principled Negotiation. While most businesspeople are now aware of the term Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, and most are familiar with the phrase Hard on the issues, soft on the people, very few know that Fisher introduced those concepts in his bestselling book, and even fewer have actually read and applied what he had to teach.

So, how do we negotiate better?

An Intro to Principled Negotiation

How does principled negotiation differ from the traditional kind? It’s an attempt to create a win-win in a situation that doesn’t obviously offer one. And as we know, of the four kinds of possible relationships, win-win is the only sustainable one over time. That’s why we want to learn Fisher’s approach. Here’s how he describes it:

There is a third way to negotiate, a way neither hard nor soft, but rather hard and soft. The method of principled negotiation developed at the Harvard Negotiation Project is to decide issues on their merits rather than through a haggling process focused on what each side says it will and won’t do. It suggests that you look for mutual gains whenever possible, and that where your interests conflict, you should insist that the result be based on some fair standards independent of the will of either side. The method of principled negotiation shows you how to obtain what you are entitled to and still be decent. It enables you to be fair while protecting you against those who would take advantage of your fairness.

The most wonderful part of Fisher’s ideas on negotiation is that they don’t require any secrecy. In fact, Fisher thinks it’s just the opposite, saying that Unlike almost all other strategies, if the other side learns this one, it does not become more difficult to use; it becomes easier. If they read this book, all the better. That’s our kind of strategy.

Step One: Separate the People from the Problem

Early in the book, Fisher lays out the goal of better negotiation with three criteria.

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. (A wise agreement can be defined as one that meets the legitimate interests of each side to the extent possible, resolves conflicting interests fairly, is durable, and take community interests into account.)

The first step of the process is to separate the people from the problem. Fisher’s method of depersonalizing in negotiation is the same method he advises to give better feedback. Why? Because it works! People are emotional creatures — you and I included. In order to deal with each other fairly, we must do our best to move from personal attack into the realm of reason and merit, even when our every fiber is telling us to attack. If we don’t, we miss a chance to build the exact sort of win-win relationship we’d love to have. We fail to understand people.

This human aspect of negotiation can be either helpful or disastrous. The process of working out an agreement may produce a psychological commitment to a mutually satisfactory outcome. A working relationship where trust, understanding, respect, and friendship are built up over time can make each new negotiation smoother and more efficient. And people’s desire to feel good about themselves, and their concern for what others will think of them, can often make them more sensitive to another negotiator’s interests.

On the other hand, people get angry, depressed, fearful, hostile, frustrated, and offended. They have egos that are easily threatened. They see the world from their own personal vantage point, and they frequently confuse their perceptions with reality. Routinely, they fail to interpret what you say in the way you intend and do not mean what you understand them to say. Misunderstanding can reinforce prejudice and lead to reactions that produce counteractions in a vicious circle; rational exploration of possible solutions becomes impossible and a negotiation fails. The purpose of the game becomes scoring points, confirming negative impressions, and apportioning blame at the expense of the substantive interest of both parties.

It’s important to understand the point: There are major transmission errors in a negotiating process. What’s heard is frequently not what’s said or intended. And once a negative feedback loop has been initiated, it can be very hard to pull out. A certain critical mass of bad blood ends the negotiation. This doesn’t have to happen — one thing that separates us from lesser animals is the ability to resist our baser instincts when we know it’s a bad idea, and negotiation is an arena where we’d be wise to learn how to do so.

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There are three areas to manage: Perception, Emotion, and Communication. Our biggest problem with perception seems to be successfully putting ourselves in the shoes of our adversary, or even seeing them as an adversary to start with. It’s almost impossible to influence somebody who you don’t empathetically understand, except through brute force — something we’re clearly not after. To be clear, just because you understand someone’s position doesn’t mean you agree with it. You may well change your mind, but even without that it allows you to consider the problem on its merits.

The emotional side is fairly simple: How do you feel during a negotiation and how does the other side feel? Fisher makes a great point in the book that we don’t need to be afraid to make our own emotions or theirs explicitI feel like you have not been fair with me thus far, and in order for us to make progress, we will need to establish mutual fairness as a goal. Otherwise, I think we will run into a stalemate.

The communication problem isn’t hard for anyone in a relationship to understand. When we’re in a contentious negotiation, both sides feel like they’re not being heard. Solving that problem requires deep listening skills and as with the perception issue, requires us to understand the person on the other side of the table at their level, not at ours. This feels impossible and unnatural, but it works. Think of the last time you felt someone truly understood and empathized with you. Did you feel contentious towards them?

In the end, the environment we want to create is that of two people sitting next to each other, trying to solve a problem together. Even if you don’t have a great relationship with the other party, or any relationship at all, it helps to make the other person feel like you’re in it together. Which brings us to the next point.

Focus on Interests, Not Positions

This is the simplest and probably the most important aspect on principled negotiation: What do I really want? And what does the other guy really want? It’s the difference between saying you want an open window when what you really want is fresh air.

It’s not always as clear as it seems. Let’s take the case of a couple arguing over who’s going to do the dishes. Both people, in the moment, start to feel like it’s really about the damn dishes. But when we step back, we realize it’s probably more about fairness — we want to feel like both parties are chipping in. A sense of fairness is a deeply held human need. And thus, if we focus on creating fairness and using the elementary idea of leading by going first, then we can end the negotiation fairly. (I’ll do the dishes tonight and then we’ll trade every night, sound good?)

It’s this basic method of figuring out what you want and what they want, and satisfying each, that leads us to win-win style outcomes. Viewing a negotiation as something to be “won” is the best way to lose.

Reconciling interests rather than positions works for two reasons. First, for every interest there usually exist several possible positions that could satisfy it. All too often people simply adopt the most obvious position, as Israel did, for example, in announcing that they intended to keep part of the Sinai. When you do look behind opposed positions for the motivating interest, you can often find an alternative position which meets not only our interests but theirs as well.

At the end of the day, all humans have the same basic needs like food, shelter, well-being, belonging, respect, and autonomy. Never violate these in a negotiation.

Invent Options for Mutual Gain

The key here is that we avoid being rigid in our solutions, and if we’ve taken the prior step seriously by focusing on interests, we can start getting creative with our problem-solving.

Let’s imagine you’re renting an apartment. It’s easy to think that you and the landlord are at odds — you want to pay the least amount of money and they want you to pay the most amount of money over the period of the rental. But that’s the wrong way to consider the problem. What you really want is to pay a fair price for a clean and well-maintained living space that you won’t get kicked out of. What the landlord wants is steady rent from a respectful tenant who won’t trash the place and is easy to deal with. Actually, most of your interests probably overlap. If you start any negotiation with that in mind, you’ll find it easier to get along.

Let’s say you’re at odds regarding who pays for repairs: Agreeing to share the cost of repairs as long as they’re completed promptly is where overlapping interests and incentives might create an agreement that could have been contentious. Outline the split, define what promptly means, and you have a settled point. If you were rigid about the problem — I refuse to pay for repairs! — you’d have lost.

Fisher lays out four pretty good reasons we fail to do this:

In most negotiations there are four obstacles that inhibit the inventing of an abundance of options: (1) Premature judgment; (2) searching for the single answer; (3) the assumption of a fixed pie; and (4) thinking that “solving their problem is their problem”.

Any negotiation can get pretty complex when all relevant interests are brought to the table, but the principle to heed is pretty simple: Where do our interests overlap, and where do they not? In the cases where they don’t, what is a mutually satisfying solution? This takes some creative thinking, of course. Rigidity doesn’t work. But if you realize that the car salesman is trying to make a living and wants a quick sale, and you want a good car at a low price, it’s not impossible to mutually satisfy those goals or exit the negotiation if they can’t both be met. The “combat of negotiation” is only in our minds.

This doesn’t mean you’d want to fold to end the negotiation without argument, or to give in. That’s the “softie” style of negotiation. You should have your needs fairly satisfied. But you don’t need to do so at the expense of the other party if it can at all be avoided. Win-lose will eventually haunt you, whether you realize it or not.

Insist on Using Objective Criteria

What is fair? Sometimes in the process of trying to satisfy mutual interests we hit a roadblock in determining just what fair actually means. If two parties can’t agree here, it’s hard to create a win-win solution that maintains and builds the relationship. The usual way is to have a contest of wills. It’s worth $50. No, it’s worth $75! No, $50! And so on.

To solve this, Fisher insists on finding objective criteria by which to measure the fairness of proposed solutions. He’s gives a good example of how this can work in practice.

Suppose you have entered into a fixed-price construction contract for your house that calls for reinforced concrete foundations but fails to specify how deep they should be. The contractor suggests two feet. You think five feet is closer to the usual depth for your type of house.

Now suppose the contractor says: “I went along with you on steel girders for the roof. It’s your turn to go along with me on shallower foundations.” No owner in his right mind would yield. Rather than horse-trade, you would insist on deciding the issue in terms of objective safety standards. “Look, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe two feet is enough. What I want are foundations strong enough and deep enough to hold up the building safely. Does the government have standard specifications for these soil conditions? How deep are the foundations of other buildings in this area? What is the earthquake risk here? where do you suggest we look for standards to resolve this question?”

It is no easier to build a good contract than it is to build strong foundation. If relying on objective standards applies so clearly to a negotiation between the house owner and a contractor, why not to business deals, collective bargaining, legal settlements, and international negotiations?

The idea is to stick to principles over back-and-forth wagering. Refuse to trade tit for tat without setting some standards upon which the decision can be made. Are there a set of precedent transactions? Is there a market for the item? Is there an agreed upon method somewhere? Fisher refers to the sound parenting idea of having one child cut the piece of cake and the other choose the piece. No one can cry foul.

And so there are three main principles to abide by:

Frame each issue as a joint search for objective criteria.

Reason and be open to reason as to which standards are most appropriate and how they should be applied.

Never yield to pressure, only to principle.

[…]

Pressure can take many forms: a bribe, a threat, a manipulative appeal to trust, or a simple refusal to budge. In all these cases, the principled response is the same: invite them to state their reasoning, suggest objective criteria you think apply, and refuse to budge except on this basis. Never yield to pressure, only to principle.

The last is worth cogitating on. When the heat comes, as it can in many negotiations, can you stick to your guns? If you’re in a traditional battle of wills, you may not be able to. But if you’ve taken some of the steps outlined here and stuck to objective criteria, sticking to the issue and not the person, you may find it’s a lot easier to hold your ground. In this way, fairness is helpful to you as much as to the other party.

Still Interested? Check out the book for a lot more depth on these topics. In Part 2, we address some negotiating questions like What if they are more powerful?, What if they won’t play?, and What if they use dirty tricks? Stay tuned.

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Two related Farnam Street Posts:

Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp On How to Provide Feedback. When was the last time you really felt your feedback improved someone else’s life, whether it was your spouse’s cooking or your employee’s performance? The problem is that we forget we’re giving feedback to a fellow human being, not an advice-taking robot.

Dan Ariely takes us to Grand Bazaar to demonstrate the psychology of Negotiation.