Getting To Yes

By: Roger Fisher



Like it or not, you are a negotiator. You and everybody you know negotiates every single day.

You might be finalizing a deal with a new client, working through a legal matter, or trying to get your kids to clean up after dinner.

No matter what you are doing, you can learn a better way to negotiate from the book Getting To Yes. It’s called principled negotiation and it was developed at the Harvard Negotiation Project.

Let’s dig in.

The Problem - Negotiations Over Positions

First let's create a definition of a successful negotiation method. The authors give us three criteria:

1. It should produce a wise agreement if agreement is possible.
2. It should be efficient.
3. It should improve or at least not damage the relationship between the parties.

When you negotiate as most of us do - arguing over positions - we are left with less than ideal results. Most of us will take one of two common approaches to negotiation.

A soft negotiator usually wants to avoid conflict, and is anxious to reach an agreement as quickly as possible.

A hard negotiator wants to win, and will do whatever it takes to get there. They usually take extreme positions, and are willing to hold out longer than soft negotiators do.

If you need to take one of these two approaches in negotiation (you don’t, as we’ll discuss in a minute), the hard approach usually dominates soft one. Soft negotiators are vulnerable to hard negotiators, and usually come out on the losing side.

To avoid you from going down that road, let’s examine why both of these two approaches should be avoided at all costs.

First, it produces unwise outcomes. When more attention is paid to positions, less attention is devoted to getting what both parties really want. Whatever position you are taking is just one possible solution to meeting your underlying needs or concerns.

Second, it’s inefficient. You waste a lot of time arguing over concessions that are not relevant to the end result, and in almost all cases introduces incentives that will stall a settlement agreeable to both sides.

Lastly, it endangers the ongoing relationship between both sides because the positional approach is so taxing emotionally, and leads to the other side feeling like you don’t understand or care about them.

Fortunately there’s a better way, and it’s called principled negotiation. It’s a way that is both hard and soft. Hard on the merits, and soft on the people.

There are 4 basic propositions:

1. Separate the people from the problem;
2. Focus on interests, not positions;
3. Invent multiple options for mutual gain before deciding what to do.
4. Insist that the result be based on some objective standard.

Before we jump into the four elements, just a quick point about timing in negotiations. These elements are relevant across the three stages of negotiation - analysis, planning and discussion. We most often think of negotiation as when we are sitting across the table from the other person, but that is actually the final stage.

1. Separate the People from the Problem

The first thing to remember is that person on the other side of the table is a human being too. They have families, emotions, backgrounds and viewpoints. And just like you, they are unpredictable, and have biases and blindspots.

As you enter a negotiation, you and your counterpart have two kinds of interests - in both the substance and the relationship. That’s because most negotiations take place with somebody you have a relationship with, and who you’ll need to work together with in the future.

This is part of the reason why positional bargaining is so harmful - it mixes up the relationship with the substance of the negotiation.

The authors suggest that we separate the relationship from the substance by dealing with that issue directly. In order to do this, we need to think about three things.


As the authors point out, the difference in your perception of the problem, and the other person’s perception of the problem, IS the problem. So in order to get anywhere in negotiation, you need to put yourself in their shoes and do your absolute best to understand their thinking on a deep level.

This falls into the category of easy to say and difficult to do. Here are some tips to make sure you do it well:

- Don’t assume that the other side intends to do whatever it is that you fear. These two are often not the same thing.

- Don’t blame the other side for your problem. This is tempting to do, but not useful.

- Deal with perceptions directly. By making them explicit and discussing them, you’ll cut through a lot of the BS quickly and effectively.

- When you do find their perceptions, look for opportunities to act inconsistently with them. The best way to change somebody’s perception is to give them clear evidence to the contrary.

- Help the other side save face by making your proposals consistent with their values. Remember, this is not the same as giving in to their demands.


You’ve heard it before - people make decisions based on emotion, not logic.

The first step here is to recognize emotions - both yours and theirs. Then, ask yourself what is producing the emotions.

As you are figuring this out, run your answers through the lenses of what the authors call “core concerns.” They figured out that most emotions in negotiation are driven by one of five interests:

(1) autonomy, the desire to make your own choices and control your own fate; (2) appreciation, the desire to be recognized and valued; (3) affiliation, the desire to belong as an accepted member of some peer group; (4) role, the desire to have a meaningful purpose; and (5) status, the desire to feel seen and acknowledged.

Most positive emotions will be related to these interests being fulfilled, and most negative emotions will be related to a lack of one of those five things.

The next step is to talk about these emotions. Make it clear that emotions are a legitimate part of the negotiation, and that it’s ok to talk about them at any time.

This will become useful at some point in the negotiation where the other side needs to let off some steam. Sometimes the best way to deal with anger or frustration is to let it out. If you help the other side do that, they’ll have the rare powerful experience of feeling like they are understood.

However, it’s critical that you don’t react yourself to emotional outbursts. If you do, it could easily escalate into a violent quarrel, which isn’t helpful in principled negotiation.

Lastly, remember that when dealing with emotions, a symbolic gesture often goes a long way. Delivering a small present for a grandchild, a note of sympathy, or a even sharing a meal together can improve a hostile emotional situation at little or no cost.


Finally, we come to the big Kanuna in dealing with people - communication. The biggest problem in any communication is the old adage of “it’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.”

Despite what you might believe or hope, there is a zero percent chance that the other side listens carefully to every word that comes out of your mouth. They are processing what you said five seconds ago, and thinking about what to say next. Only the smallest amount of energy is devoted to truly understanding what you are saying in the moment.

All to say that sometimes what you say isn’t truly understood, or worse mis-understood.

The easiest way to combat this natural tendency is to model active listening, where you acknowledge what is being said by the other side and repeat it in your own language.

Then, when it’s your turn to speak, make sure you speak about yourself and not about them. It’s much more persuasive to describe a problem in terms of it’s impact on you rather than in terms of what they other side did or why. The example the authors give is short and powerful. Instead of saying “You broke your word,” say “I feel let down” instead.

Lastly, remember that some things are better left unsaid, especially when emotions are running high.

An ounce of prevention…

Knowing how to deal with problems as they arise is good, but dealing with them before they arise in the first place is better.

One of ways you can nip perception, emotion and communication problems in the bud before they arise is to build a working relationship. If you know and like the person sitting on the other side of the table, it’s so much easier to practice principled negotiation. This will help you unpack the problem from the relationship, which we’ve already described as one of the biggest problems in negotiation.

2. Focus on Interests, Not Positions

The main issue in negotiation isn’t a difference in positions, but a difference in each side’s needs, desires, concerns and fears.

When you strip away the positions, you’ll quite often find that your interests are compatible. Just because their positions are opposed to ours, doesn’t mean that their interests much also be opposed.

So, how do you do it?

Using the most powerful one-word question in the English language is a good start. By asking “why” - either to yourself or out loud to the other side - you’ll start to unpack the layers and get down to the real issues.

As you start to listen to their rationale, start asking yourself “why not?” Trying to understand why the other side hasn’t agreed to what you are asking for will help you get the full picture.

What you’ll come to realize quickly is that each side has multiple interests, and that the most powerful of these are basic human needs like security, economic well-being, a sense of belonging, recognition and control over one’s life.

Talking about your interests

The next step is to talk about the interests you’ve uncovered. The probability of your interests getting served substantially increase when you communicate them.

The other side probably isn’t a principled negotiation black belt like you are, so you’ll probably have to help them along.

First, make it clear to them that you understand their interests. Get them to agree that you understand them before moving on to talking about yours.

Second, make sure that you are talking about your interests first, and your proposals about how to fix them later. They need to understand your interests to fully understand your solution. Be as specific as you can about your interests.

Third, instead of looking backwards and rehashing what the other side has done, look forward and discuss what you can do together. You will satisfy your interests better if you talk about where you would like to go instead of where you have come from.

Fourth, be concrete but flexible. In order to do this, use the principle of “illustrative specificity.” Treat each option you generate to solve the problem as simply an option, nothing more. When you communicate that you believe there’s more than one way to meet your needs, the other side is more likely to act that way too.

Finally, be hard on the problem and soft on the people. Commit yourself fully to your interests, and be hard on ensuring they are met. Remember, principled negotiation isn’t about rolling over and playing dead - it’s about finding a solution that fully meets your interests, and the interests of the other side.

3. Invent Options for Mutual Gain

In most negotiations, there are four major challenges that prevent the creation of an abundance of options. Let’s take a look at them in turn, and their solutions.

The Problems

Premature judgment

When you listen to options presented by the other side, nothing is more harmful than the mindset of waiting to poke holes in their arguments.

Searching for the single answer

This is a mindset shift that will make all the difference. For most people, narrowing the gap between the two sides is the purpose of negotiation, not to invent different options. Remember that there is no single best answer, and the best way to come up with the best idea is to have a lot of ideas.

The assumption of a fixed pie

Most of us see negotiations as either/or - either I get what is in dispute or you do.

Thinking that “solving their problem is their problem”

This doesn’t need much explanation, other than to say that it isn’t helpful.

The Solutions

Now that we’ve covered what gets in the way of creating multiple options, let’s talk about how to clear the path.

Separate inventing from deciding

This is another one of those things that is easy to say but difficult to do. But if you can separate the act of inventing possibilities from the act of criticizing or analyzing them, both sides will come out ahead.

Broaden the options on the table rather than look for a single answer

There are many ways to do this, and they all look like a brainstorming session. For instance, you could ask yourself and your negotiating partner how a particular expert might come up with different options. If the issue was custody of a child, how might an educator, a psychiatrist, lawyer or doctor come up with creative options?

The key here is that you are able to step outside yourself and put yourself in the shoes of a dispassionate third party. Less highly charged emotions equals more creative options.

Search for mutual gains

Instead of searching for where your interests are not aligned, search for ways in which they are. One tactic is to invent several options that are equally acceptable to you, and to ask them which is preferable (not necessarily acceptable.) Then, take their choice, tweak it some more, and repeat the process again. Eventually this will bring you down a path much closer to satisfying both of your needs and desires.

Make their decision easy

Finally, if you want to get the other side to agree to a resolution, you need to think long and hard about how to make that decision easy for them. Try and remove all of the pain from making the decision as possible before you present the solution.

4. Insist on Using Objective Criteria

Making decisions based on objective criteria is the best and easiest way to keep the focus on the issues, and away from the things that causes negotiations to break down.

There are many things you can consider to be a standard, including market value, precedents set in other situations, what a court would decide, professional standards, and anything that allows you to make a decision based on principle and not pressure.


Negotiation is never easy, because almost nobody likes conflict. If you use your natural tendency to avoid conflict, you can find a better path to getting what you want while retaining a working relationship with the other side: principled negotiation.

Put it to work in every area of your life, and you’ll find yourself happier, and getting what you want more often. And we could all use a little more of that.