In their seminal book, Getting to Yes, originally published in 1981, Roger Fisher and William Ury’s subtitle, Negotiating Agreement without Giving In, only begins to describe how this fairly short 200 page book, gives valuable lessons on the art of negotiating Win-Win solutions, instead the more commonly experienced Win-Lose, or worse yet, Lose-Lose solutions. These lessons are needed today more than ever before.
As I previously described in, The Great Dysfunction or Lessons in how Not to Govern, our political environment is poisoned by politicians and their funders who believe that their sole goal is to obtain or retain the political majority. Sadly, the recent failure of the U.S. Senate to pass the mildest of gun control reforms when it allowed a minority of Senators to block the background checks that roughly 90% of Americans want, demonstrated that the desire to obtain a Win-Win solution was unable to carry the day in the face of the NRA’s desire to “win” at all costs.
While there are numerous other examples of the failure of our political leaders to obtain palatable outcomes on the important issues of our day, rather than point fingers and accuse one side or the other of their responsibility for this miserable failure of leadership, the lessons taught so well in Getting to Yes need revisiting in order to change the unfortunate dynamic we are currently experiencing.
Fisher and Ury explain that we all negotiate on a daily basis, whether we realize it or not. We negotiate with our families, our co-workers, those with whom we do business, as well as in the legal and political arenas. While it may feel good to “win” when one negotiates, the long term outcome of having someone you deal with on a regular basis “lose” the negotiation, may not be worth it in the end.
I regularly explain this to parents of children with disabilities, whom I represent, when they want to “win” their legal claim against a wrongdoing school district, but may end up destroying relationships with the very educators whom they need to provide a quality education to their children. Thus, I regularly remind them to “keep their eye on the prize,” which is the quality education they seek for their children, and not the pound of flesh which their anger may cause them to desire.
Many people who are in the midst of a dispute assume that there will always be a winner and a loser when the dispute is resolved. This assumption is patently false, as there are two other possible outcomes:
- Neither side wins because the dispute remains unresolved (e.g., Israel and Palestine); and
- Both sides lose because though the dispute is resolved, neither side is happy with the outcome (e.g., a lawsuit results in a Pyrrhic victory for one side because that side obtains a fraction of what it sought and spent more money on attorneys than it gained through the resolved dispute).
So, how do Fisher & Ury suggest obtaining Win-Win solutions? They do so by focusing on five key elements of principled negotiations:
- “Separate the people from the problem.” In other words, the goal in negotiating should not be beating the other side. It should be solving the problem at hand. Successful negotiation should not be considered the equivalent of a competitive sport if the parties are truly interested in solving the problem.
- “Focus on interests, not positions.” In the special education advocacy example mentioned earlier, the parents’ interest is in getting their children a quality education, not in having a judge rule in their favor to prove to the school district that they were right.
- “Invent options for mutual gain.” This is where win-win negotiating really becomes an art form. Creative negotiators seek opportunities where both sides can gain from the outcome. For example, when a school is dealing with a difficult behavioral situation, the win-lose situation is the child either stays in school with continued misbehavior, or the child is expelled, relieving the school from having to deal with the child, but putting the child on the Schools to Prison Pipeline. The win-win solution involves bringing in a behavioral expert to observe the child in school and to provide sound suggestions to educators on how to improve teaching techniques and behavioral interventions to teach the child appropriate behaviors.
- “Insist on using objective criteria.” All too often, negotiation takes place on emotional terms or even outright falsehoods. We saw this in the recent background check debate where the opponents to background checks simply lied about the bill before the Senate by raising false fears that the bill would prevent sales between family members. No problems are successfully resolved by relying on falsehoods or emotions alone.
- “Know your BATNA (Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement)” On a regular basis, I must counsel clients on what the likely outcome is if they fail to come to a negotiated agreement. Without knowing this, the client (or politician) cannot truly make an informed decision as to whether to accept the offer presented.
This is not to suggest that Getting to Yes is easy. In fact, it takes hard work, checking egos at the door, and regular reminders of what you are really seeking in the midst of your negotiation. For nearly 28 years, I have had the professional privilege of assisting clients, non-profits and policymakers negotiate Win-Win solutions with the assistance of Getting to Yes principles. Perhaps it is time for our political leaders to read and follow the rules of this invaluable book.