Negotiating Through Life: Four Principles (Part One)

Samo kidWhether we enjoy the process or not, negotiation is an everyday part of our lives. Where did you go on holiday last year? Who ‘won’ that negotiation? Do you find yourself having to negotiate a better deal with your suppliers or curfew for your teenagers?

In their definitive textbook on negotiation, Getting to Yes, Fisher and Ury wrote, ‘Everyone negotiates something every day…. Negotiation is a basic means of getting what you want from others.’[1] Or, as Italian diplomat Daniele Vare described diplomacy, it’s ‘the art of letting them have your way.’

Negotiation doesn’t have to be an aggressive bun fight. It can and should become a partnership in a problem-solving exercise.

In his Stanford class on negotiation, Stan Christensen defines negotiation as ‘any attempt to persuade or influence a party to do something.’ He calls negotiation ‘effective relationship management’. But he says that if he were to advertise it as a class in relationship management, no one would come, or they would come with the wrong expectations.

Fisher and Ury insist that effective negotiation should (among other things) ‘improve or at least not damage the relationship between the parties.’ In other words, negotiation is an opportunity to find lasting solutions that benefit all parties and strengthen the relationships.

In spite of what we often experience, negotiation is a partnership, not a confrontation.  It’s not an easy partnership but one that can be managed for more effective results. Even the most hardened sales people whose income depends on concluded sales, know that it’s not the sale but the relationship that counts. A sale at the expense of a relationship is a single sale, while a relationship may open doors to many more to come. How we negotiate, therefore, is crucial for maintaining those relationships that are important in business and in life.

Fisher and Ury advocate a principled method of negotiating that is often referred to as the Harvard method. They identify four principles of negotiation: 1) separate the people from the problem; 2) focus on interests, not positions; 3) invent options for mutual gain; and 4) insist on objective criteria for assessment.[2]

1. Separate the PEOPLE from the problem
Negotiations break down when our disagreements become personal.  However objective we might be, our words and actions are interpreted by others through the filters of their own experience and reality. And we do the same with their words and actions.

These myriad interpretations affect our relationships, which in turn affect our negotiations.  When they arise, these ‘people problems’, as Fisher and Ury call them, cannot be ignored, but they need to be recognised and dealt with separately from the substantive issues of negotiation.

We seldom get to choose our negotiating partners. Whatever we think of them, their attitudes or lifestyles, they hold the key to our business success, our community’s future or peace in our time.

‘Lakhdar Brahimi, a United Nations special envoy to Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, said: ‘To stop fighting, you’ve got to talk to the people who are doing the fighting, no matter how horrible they are…. If I don’t want to shake their hands, I shouldn’t have accepted this job.’[3]

If we approach negotiation as a partnership rather than a confrontation, we see ourselves standing next to each other looking at and working on the problem rather than facing each other and fighting over a bone.

We will look at the other three principles of negotiation in our next article (see here).

[1] R Fisher & W Ury, Getting to Yes, Hutchinson Business, London (1986), p 4
[2] R Fisher and W Ury, Getting to Yes, (1986) p4
[3] Susan Hackley, Dealing with difficult people’, The New Conflict Management, Harvard Law School,

Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people and HR & people-management consulting.

1 Comment

  1. […] our previous article (see Part One), we saw that negotiation is more about managing and maintaining relationships than it is about […]

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