Get to Yes

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (affiliate link) is arguably the most famous book written on negotiations. It was written by Roger Fisher and William Ury in 1981 and has been compulsory reading for negotiations classes at Washington, Columbia, Texas, Princeton, Rutgers, MIT and other universities for 30 years. More importantly, it has been endorsed by people who use these lessons daily – diplomats, lawyers, and business people. This stuff works.

This book makes four arguments. When you read them, you will find them very straight-forward, and almost a little too obvious. Who does not know this, right? Well, to be truthful, Fortune 500 organizations have a terrible time implementing these simple things and, as a result, often hire management consultant for help.

  • People: Separate the people from the problem
  • Interests: Focus on interests, not positions
  • Options: Generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do
  • Criteria: Insist that the results be based on some objective standard

1.  Separate the people from the problem. People have emotions, bias, ego and history – so it is no wonder that mundane business problems are often actually people problems. I have been on several projects where we were hired to lend objectivity, arbitrate a disagreement between departments, or simply bridge a gap in communications. You see this type of communication breakdown very frequently between Sales and Marketing. See Professor Philip Kotler’s take on this cross-functional dysfunction here.

Republicans and Democrats demonize each other. One of the many reasons for the political impasse in Washington nowadays is the each side (both Republican and Democrat) see the other side as dogmatic, simplistic and self-serving. No wonder they have trouble negotiating when they see the other side as evil.

Get to Yes - Reagan and O'Neill

In the 1980s, it was different.  President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil were fierce opponents who disagreed on most policy issues, and yet, were friends who shared dinners and drinks. In a Washington Post article by Chris Matthews here, he recalls a brief exchange with President Reagan:

  • Chris Matthews: “Mr. President, welcome to the room where we plot against you,”
  • Ronald Reagan: “Oh, no, not after 6,” he replied. “The speaker says that here in Washington we’re all friends after 6.”

2. Focus on interests not on positionsToo often, people speak in absolutes and say things like “I will always do XYZ” or “We will never ABC“. They frame the discussion in terms of “their position” as if it were written in stone. Clearly, this is not really a negotiation so much as a confrontation. It becomes a zero-sum game – where one person’s gain can only be at the other person’s loss.

Positions over-simplify the problem. When dealing with a complex problem – reducing the federal deficit, protecting the environment, reducing crime, alleviating poverty – it seems a bit laughable to think that there is a silver bullet, or singularly perfect solution, or a correct “position” to take on the issue. Complex problems require hard thought, collaboration, leadership and a lot of hard work.

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.“       – H.L. Menken

Instead, think in terms of interests. The goals for a negotiation can be numerous, different, complementary, or even competing. They are not discrete points on a graph, but more like a Venn diagram of two (hopefully over-lapping) circles. As all Venn diagrams imply, we are looking for the space in the middle that represents a win-win, or at least a mutually beneficial compromise.  Get to Yes - Positions vs Interests - Graph3. Generate options before deciding. Sometimes clients jump to conclusions because they have been in the industry for 20-30 years, or because “it has always been done that way”. Consultants are more willing to start with a blank white sheet of paper.

Consultants are really good at this because they spend the time getting the data and really thinking through the problem. At the beginning of a project, we open the lens very widely and let in all the potential variables and look for hypotheses everywhere.

  • We brainstorm new ideas; at this stage no ideas are ruled out
  • We keep asking “why” until we get to core reason
  • We dig until we get to the root causes and find out what the real drivers are
  • We interview people up & down the org chart
  • We reach out to industry experts who know the larger trends
  • We look for points of comparisons and benchmarks

It’s very common for consultants to structure multiple options for the client to choose from. This acknowledges that there are multiple potential solutions, but there are trade-offs.  It really depends on the clients’ time frame, appetite for risk, budget, and conviction. There is often 1 primary recommendation, but multiple implementation options.

4. Insist that the decision be made using objective criteria. One of the best ways to drive consensus is to create evaluation criteria and make the client stick to it. For a strategic sourcing engagement, there is typically a request-for-proposal (RFP) for vendors and a RFP evaluation form that clients use to rate the vendors’ proposal. As I wrote in post, you can use this to evaluate a home you plan to purchase, or even your favorite Presidential candidate.

I have done this many ways.  Sometimes, we use surveys or even pass out evaluation criteria checklists during a meeting.  This is the same way you would approach a maturity model.

Sadly, politicians don’t heed the basic instructions found in this best-seller. It is as if they were reading an anti-book called Sinking to No, or somehow reading the book upside down. There it too much demonizing of the other party, too much talk of unalterable positions, very little brainstorming of new solutions. They say and do things that make it nearly impossible to solve America’s most pressing problems.

Learn negotiation from married people. Anyone married for more than 10 years can vouch for Ury’s advice.   You have to know what is important, look for win-win solutions, and use some strategic compromise for the sake of the relationship.  In a long-term relationship, a short-term harsh win is often a long-term lose.  All husbands know this.

Relevant links: 7 Ways to Simmer Down a Heated Debate (INC magazine)

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