Category Archives: negotiation

Book: Getting to Yes

(c) 2010 David Prior – Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Licence

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In
Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton, 2nd ed.
1991 New York: Houghton Mifflin Company
ISBN-13: 978-0-395-63124-9

Personal response

Getting to Yes is a slim book that packs a lot of useful advice from corporate, government, and personal experience. The focus on principled negotiation, reason, and objective criteria will help me learn to keep my cool during difficult negotiations, and to stay focused on finding or creating options that address people’s interests instead of being limited to the positions that have been expressed.

This book focuses more on the process of negotiation, while “Thank You for Arguing” focuses more on the forms of rhetoric and the components of argument. Both are good reads in this area.

One of the key things I’d like to do to apply the lessons from this book is to develop better relationships with people, which can help when negotiating. (Not just for the purpose of negotiation, of course!) The more I understand about other people and the more they understand about me, the better the conversations can be.

Aside from applying these ideas to relationships with family and friends, I’m also looking forward to exploring this through outsourcing or other avenues.


  • Part 1: The Problem: Don’t bargain over positions

    When you think about negotiation, it’s hard to escape the stereotype of haggling over souvenirs, houses, or salaries. There are age-old tactics for dealing with those kinds of negotations: start with an extreme, and only grudgingly give up ground. The authors argue that this kind of position-based negotiation is inefficient and ineffective. Instead of getting locked into one position or another, you should focus on understanding your interests and other parties’ interests, and inventing creative solutions that work for everyone if possible.

  • Part 2: The method

    In this part, the book gives concrete tips for working through the different components of a negotiation: people, interests, options, and criteria.

    People: We often see negotiation as an adversarial problem. If you can reframe it from a contest of wills to a cooperative initiative to find something that works for all parties, negotiation becomes much easier. This can be difficult when there’s a lot of public pressure, so understand people’s private interests as well as their expressed ones. The book also points out the importance of focusing not just on the situation, but also on the relationship, and the value of developing a good working relationship outside the negotiation.

    Interests: The positions people take may give some clues about the interests they have, but these positions should not be the final word in negotiation. Find out more about what people truly value, because that may help you find creative ways to address those interests.

    Options: If you don’t firmly commit yourself to a position, you have more space to find better solutions that line up with people’s interests.

    Criteria: It’s better to negotiate using reason and objective criteria than to take arbitrary positions. Identify objective criteria you and other parties can agree on, and use those to evaluate the options. Translate irrational arguments into objective criteria, asking questions to investigate.

  • Part 3: Yes, but…

    This is where negotiation meets the real world. In this part, the book covers how to negotiate with a seemingly more powerful opponent, a stand-off, and dirty tricks.

    How to deal with power imbalances: Develop your best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA). This will help you resist pressure. If your alternative is stronger than their alternative, you will also have more negotiation room.

    It’s important to pick one alternative as your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, and to have a good idea of this alternative before negotiating. We can be overly optimistic and think of hundreds of alternatives. If we don’t choose, however, we can feel overwhelmed. Picking one forces clarity and makes it easier to walk away if necessary.

    How to deal with people who won’t negotiate: If people are locked into positions and don’t want to negotiate, or focus on irrational arguments, you still have several approaches you can try. The first approach is to focus on negotiating well yourself, using interests, options, and objective criteria. Another option is to redirect their negotiation moves in a way that focuses on interests, options, and objective criteria. The third strategy uses a trained mediator who can help you focus on collaboratively finding a solution.

    How to deal with dirty tricks: Keep your best alternative in mind. Call out the tactic and talk about it. Use objective criteria to avoid giving in to pressure. Don’t be afraid to take breaks or to walk away if necessary.

  • Part 4: In Conclusion

    It’s not about “winning” – it’s about finding ways to deal with differences. The book has a lot of advice that we’ve heard from different sources, but you still need to practice in order to get better at it.

  • Part 5: Ten questions people ask about Getting to Yes
    • Questions about fairness and “principled” negotiation
      1. “Does positional bargaining ever make sense?”
      2. “What if the other side believes in a different standard of fairness?”
      3. “Should I be fair even if I don’t have to be?”
    • Questions about dealing with people
      1. “What do I do if the people are the problem?”
      2. “Should I negotiate even with terrorists or someone like Hitler? When does it make sense not to negotiate?”
      3. “How should I adjust my negotiating approach to account for differences of personality, gender, culture, and so on?”
    • Questions about tactics
      1. “How do I decide things like ‘Where should we meet?’ ‘Who should make the first offer?’ and ‘How high should I start?'”
      2. “Concretely, how do I move from inventing options to making commitments?”
      3. “How do I try out these ideas without taking too much risk?”
    • Questions about power
      1. “Can the way I negotiate really make a difference if the other side is more powerful?” And “How do I enhance my negotiating power?”

Visual book review: Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In


Getting To Yes is the kind of book you want to read before you negotiate UN treaties, business contracts, or a special deal on that lovely rug. I read it in September 2010 and promptly started referring to my Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) even in non-negotiation situations such as decision-making.

The idea of not arguing over positions (I want $X as a salary, Y days of vacation, and a pony) and focusing instead on interests (I value fair compensation, flexible schedules, and cute transportation) might help people avoid or break out of negotiation deadlocks. Also useful is the reminder that negotiations don’t have to be the competitive I-win-you-lose head-on collision that people often see it to be, and that a cooperative approach is more likely to get you to where you want to go by getting other people to where they want to go.

Unfortunately, the tips in the book do not work when negotiating with cats, who don’t care if you discuss their dirty tricks with them. Despite that weakness, this is still an excellent book to read whether or not you have a diplomatic passport.

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In
Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton, 2nd ed.
1991 New York: Houghton Mifflin Company

See more visual book notes!

Learning how to say no

The most fascinating thing I’m learning about business these days is the art and discipline of saying no. Many people aren’t comfortable with saying no. I’m practising how to say no – how to set clear boundaries and negotiate within them. There are a few things I say yes to: time with family, doing good work on my enterprise social software consulting engagement, learning new skills and ideas. I’m experimenting with saying no by default to all these other requests which don’t strike a chord within me.

It’s a good time to learn how to say no well, and when to say it. I have a main engagement that I want to be 100% awesome on, the savings to avoid desperation, and the terrific Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreements (BATNAs) of learning and discovery. It’s okay to turn things down, because I know I’ll use the time well. This is as good a time as any to become comfortable with choosing.

This is something I didn’t get to practise much as an employee, because there was often someone to whom I could defer decisions. Scope? I knew the project manager would keep me honest. Requests from different departments? I ran things by my manager to find out how to prioritize, and sometimes asked him to play the bad cop.

Now I’m in charge of my time. When I say no, it’s me saying no, not some process or some externally-set priority.

I don’t often say no directly, of course. There are many ways to negotiate something without saying no and without setting up a win-lose situation. I like thinking of it as being firm and professional, without being confrontational. It’s not rejection for the sake of rejection; more like nudging people towards others for whom they would be a better fit, more like figuring out how I really want to spend my time and focusing on that.

I like this. The process of saying no is the process of clarifying understandings and helping people find better fits. When I’m super-good at saying no, I’ll have a collection of templates that I can easily customize (I regret that I will not be able to speak at your conference because I limit my travel, etc.), and somehow people will end up happier than when they asked. That might be a tough one, but I can work on saying no thoughtfully.

Yes-to-everything is another approach much encouraged by blogs, books, and the occasional movie, but looking at that plays out in other people’s lives… I think it would drive me crazy. I wouldn’t be happy saying yes for the sake of saying yes, particularly as many of the things I want in my life are different from what other people want. I’m happy doing a few things well, building new strengths on old ones, experimenting with small steps and new directions (but not too many). This feels right.

My dad is probably the yes-est person I know. He’s amazing at making things happen. People get caught up in his ideas. He inspires yeses, and he says yes to life with way more intensity than I do. (People who tell me I’m energetic have never met my dad. ;) ) Even then, I’m sure he says no to some things – or does so by suggesting even better versions of the request, things that are more in line with what gives him energy.

Something to think about. What really is my default? It’s not actually no either, is it? I think it’s more along the lines of “Let’s find out, let’s find something that works for both of us, even if that means other people taking advantage of the opportunity”. Hmm…

Things I value unequally

I was talking to someone who taught a class at Trade School Toronto. To enable more people to access education, the school has a barter system where instructors can post a list of things they value, and students can creatively pay for their education that way instead.

I’ve been thinking about this because a few friends have asked me for help with learning things, and because I’d like to offer pair programming like the way that Avdi does. But I know that people’s budgets can be a little tight, and just using money ignores a whole range of possibilities. What would my swap list be? Here are some of the things I value and would be willing to swap for:

  • Money is useful because it can be translated into other things. It’s good to exchange money, because we get to practise agreeing on value. But if you have more time than money, or you have other things that we unequally value, let’s figure out how we can swap those instead.
  • Notes: Share what you’re learning!
  • Conversations over meals, particularly home-cooked ones; we need more leisurely conversations about life
  • Questions – I want to write about useful ideas, so people’s questions are great for this
  • Tools and processes. This includes software, and it also includes getting better at configuring or working with the tools I have. I’m particularly interested in:
    • tools for tracking
    • tools for connecting with people
    • the Adobe Creative Suite of tools: how can I build a sketchnoting workflow around Illustrator?
  • Skills
    • Book-keeping, accounting, and personal finance planning – I would definitely love to ask someone book-keeping and accounting questions, especially regarding Canada
    • Data visualization – bouncing ideas around, learning how to use tools like R and D3
    • Sketchnoting and graphic recording – help me broaden my visual vocabulary
    • Delegation – talk to me about your processes
    • Development – I’d love to learn more about Android, Rails, JQuery / Javascript, CSS, AutoHotkey, and other cool things
    • Cooking – in person? it would be interesting to swap dishes or set up a potluck club
    • Tell me what you’re good at, and chances are we can find some way to use that. I’m learning more about delegation and making things happen, so I’d love to learn how to work with all sorts of skills.
  • Books
    • Particularly business and communication books that aren’t carried by the Toronto Public Library; also, well-written children’s literature
    • Book notes are useful, too!
  • Time, chores, convenience: Groceries? Cat sitting? Hauling lots of books back and forth from the library?

There’s more we can add to this list, of course, so feel free to suggest something that you think might be a good fit.