Negotiating Through Life: Four Principles (Part Two)

In our previous article (see Part One), we saw that negotiation is more about managing and maintaining relationships than it is about winning and losing.

We looked at the first of Fisher and Ury’s four principles of negotiation: separate the people from the problem. Today we look at the other three: focus on interests, not positions; invent options for mutual gain; and insist on objective criteria for assessment.[1]

2. Focus on INTERESTS, not positions
Many of the problems we encounter occur because our negotiations take the form of positional bargaining. A position is a desired outcome usually stated as a requirement or demand.

Each party has its position, takes a stand behind its lines and fights to hold its ground. In wage negotiations, for example, the union begins with a high demand and the employer responds with a low offer. The positions are worlds apart and everyone knows they will have to compromise.

Eventually, after much bluster and grandstanding, the parties move closer to their actual positions and closer to each other. Sometimes a compromise is reached and both sides ride off into the sunset proclaiming victory. No reference is made to the original demands, and no one knows how close either side is to their original, undisclosed bottom line.

A gut feel for the other side’s breaking point, hard line bullying and pushing for a ‘win’ are all part of the positional-bargaining game. But it is not negotiation, and the win lasts only until the next time. The losing party has learned that they need to fight harder and (if necessary) dirtier to ensure the next win.

One’s interests are often not quite as clear, but they are the reason behind the position, the fear that drives the demand. Take a couple planning their annual holiday: he wants to go to the mountains while she wants to go to the sea. Those are their stated positions. What are their interests?

To find their interests we need to dig deeper. Fisher and Ury[2] suggest asking, why? Why must it be the mountains? Why can’t it be the sea?

It may be that their mountain holidays have always been in tents (usually wet), and she wants a ‘proper’ holiday in a hotel or a cottage. Maybe his objection to the beach is that he doesn’t want to ‘waste’ his holiday lying on the hot sand doing nothing. He wants to get out and see things.

A comfortable cottage in the mountains might suit both of them, and they’d both enjoy a beach holiday if they agreed to walk on the beach in the cool of the early morning while seeing the sites during the day. Negotiating interests rather than positions means that they can find a solution that suits both of them without the need for strong arm tactics or an uncomfortable compromise.

In business negotiations it’s not what you are selling or the price you offer that matters, it’s whether you have a solution to the other person’s business needs. As one writer put it,

‘Find out what your opponent wants and begin to build a case for why your solution meets her needs. If you’re successful, you can turn your adversaries into your partners.’ [3]

3. Invent OPTIONS for mutual gain
If we focus on interests rather than positions, we can look for multiple options that will satisfy the interests of both sides. The more ideas we can generate, the more chance there is of finding a satisfactory solution. If we know what the other party is trying to achieve, we have a better chance of adjusting what we offer to meet their needs.

4. Insist on OBJECTIVE CRITERIA for assessment
Fischer and Ury’s fourth principle is for the parties to agree on objective criteria to assess the proposed options. If they are available, objective criteria will introduce fairness into the negotiation process. That way we don’t go home feeling we have been cheated. For example:

  • In wage negotiations, other settlements in the industry may act as a guide. Or a fair price for a house may be the market value in the area.
  • Car dealers use what is known as the ‘book price’ as a guide to a fair price for a used car.
  • When negotiating a holiday destination, a couple might list four or five interests each and agree that they will accept any destination that satisfies both parties’ top three.

As we said in the beginning, negotiation doesn’t have to be an aggressive bun fight. It can and should become a partnership in a problem-solving exercise. Enjoy your next holiday.

We’d love to have your comments below.

[1] R Fisher and W Ury, Getting to Yes, (1986)
[2] Ibid, page 4
[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. […] We will look at the other three principles of negotiation in our next article (see here). […]

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