Getting to Yes

That's the title of the Harvard Law School Negotiation Project's statement of principle, which is subtitled Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. And what it's about, in the words of a sage Rolling Stone, is how "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need."

In the 1991 second edition of Getting to Yes (Penguin paperback, $14), Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton present their Harvard-grown humanistic approach to win-win bartering. If you have not yet heard of their methods, you are in for a surprise. They look at the negotiating table and see the chance to befriend the enemy. Their prime argument--that an equitable and feasible agreement is best reached by meeting the needs of both sides--is a convincing one.

Interests Prevail

Focus on interests, not positions.

That is the meat of the message from the Harvard program. To illustrate how this differs from what we usually think of when we hear the word negotiation, consider yourself transplanted to a stall in the gold market in Beirut, Lebanon. You have your eye on a brilliant wide band, which you think will be a perfect gift for your spouse. You've done your homework, know the price of gold and approximately how much the ring will weigh, and thus are able to settle on a sum in your mind, perhaps the maximum you will pay. Meanwhile, the merchant knows, probably better than you do, the cost of making the piece and the profit he would like to make, so he fixes a price in his mind, below which he will not sell.

Here the positions are based on what both sides would like to see in terms of money exchanged for the ring. But according to the tenets of interest-based bargaining, focusing too much on objective criteria such as price, or salary in the case of faculty positions, can produce a tenuous agreement in which basic human needs--security, economic well-being, a sense of belonging, recognition, control over one's life--are not met. Such agreements are difficult for both sides to uphold.

For both you and the gold merchant, an interest-based agreement might well involve the price of the ring, as that will affect economic well-being. But as the buyer you might be willing to pay a higher price if you could also obtain a certificate of composition for the gold used in the ring; this would address your need to know that you are purchasing an item of good quality, satisfy your insurance agent, and save you having to get the ring appraised.

The merchant, on the other hand, knows that you come frequently to Beirut on business and will want you to recognize, and tell your friends, that his shop is a reputable and fair place to buy gold. Rather than getting a higher price for the ring, he may be more interested in offering you a cup of Arabic coffee at the back of his shop, giving you a stack of his business cards to hand out, and finding other ways to help you recognize his worth among the hundreds of other gold vendors in the market.

Had you and the seller not taken the time to step back and consider each other's larger needs, none of these possibilities would have emerged and you may well have bought the ring for about the price you wished. But you would have missed out on developing a long-term relationship of far greater benefit than the short-term goal of saving a few dollars.

Options Abound

The crux of the Harvard technique is inventing options, and so preparing for interest-based negotiation takes time and effort. Most people don't want to invest that effort so they fall back on the quick fix of positional bargaining. But for those who do wish to accept the challenge, the Harvard project provides a clearly defined four-step method for inventing options (see sidebar).

But first, a warning from the negotiation wizards: In the process of inventing options, it is not sufficient to only develop your own options; you should also try to put yourself in the shoes of the people with whom you are negotiating and come up with solutions that will satisfy the needs of both parties. In fact, the Harvard method suggests that you think of a negotiation as an event where the parties involved sit side-by-side and consider together a problem that needs to be solved by using the brainpower of all concerned, adversaries or not.

Inventing Options

There are four steps in the process of inventing options, which can be a cyclical one, depending on how complicated the problem. Steps I and IV, the first and last, draw on your perception of the real world, and steps II and III rely on the hypothetical or ideal solutions to come out of brainstorming sessions. (By the way, the authors of Getting to Yes give great tips on how to unstructure brainstorming sessions to capture the widest--and wildest--range of possibilities; I recommend those pages of the book to students of the brainstorming process.) But I digress. ... The four steps in the cycle of inventing options are:

Step I. The Problem. Figure out what's wrong; list the symptoms and what you dislike about the current situation in contrast to a preferred situation.

Step II. Analysis. Diagnose the problem by sorting symptoms into categories, suggesting causes, and identifying barriers to resolving the problem.

Step III. Approaches. Identify possible strategies and theoretical cures and come up with broad ideas about what could be done.

Step IV. Action Ideas. Name specific steps that might be taken to fix the problem.

Going to BATNA

In addition to inventing options that serve the needs of both parties, the Harvard project strongly emphasizes the need to develop a Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). Developing a solid BATNA--in other words, a satisfying and feasible Plan B--will greatly increase your power and your enjoyment of the negotiating process. As the Harvard method makes clear, the BATNA is, at the very least, your safety net. It is easier to break off negotiations if you know your other options.

In fact, developing a BATNA looks a lot like inventing options. You first need to create a list of actions you might take if no agreement is reached, then convert some of the more promising ideas into practical alternatives, before selecting the one alternative that seems best. But it is also important to consider what the other side's BATNA might be; doing so will help you to recognize when it's time to walk away from the negotiation and start exercising your own BATNA.

Nota Bene: Think Through Your Options

The instructions warn of the danger, a common pitfall, of lumping together alternatives to negotiation, thus making walking away to carry out your BATNA seem more attractive than it actually is. Going back to Beirut for a moment, your BATNA might be to give up on the first merchant and try some others. But you may fail to consider the weather--perhaps it is a hot and sticky July day--and your time constraints--the fact that your plane leaves in 3 hours and you don't want to end up boarding without purchasing the ring intended for the birthday celebration happening on your return.

Or, in the case of a faculty position under negotiation, your BATNA may be to decline the offer and remain in your postdoctoral position, which you can only do if two sequential grants get funded, a fuzzy proposition at best.

What if, in developing your BATNA, you find that it is much more feasible and attractive than any imagined negotiated agreement? Or what if, in considering the other side's BATNA, you discover that it is in their best interest to do nothing because time is on their side. In the first instance, you can stop negotiating and invest your energy elsewhere. And in the second ... well, you've suddenly discovered why your attempts to negotiate have been stonewalled. Either way, knowledge is power, and the gain in self-knowledge would seem to be worth the time spent acquiring it.

And once you have your BATNA, you can judge every offer against it. But whether you should disclose your BATNA during negotiations depends on how you think the other side will view it; if they will think it better than what they can offer you, they might be more willing to accommodate your interests to reach agreement. If they think it worse, then they might be less willing to meet your needs. You have to make a case-by-case judgement call.

Knowing When to Walk

Why, other than suddenly being enamored of your BATNA, might you want to throw in the towel? Well let's say the other side is playing dirty or not playing at all. You could end negotiation there or, if you want to keep at it, you can try negotiation jujitsu (outlined in Chapter 7), an attempt to bring the discussion back to the merits and away from the positions. Or you can read the sequel to Yes, William Ury's Getting Past No: Negotiating Your Way from Confrontation to Cooperation (1993, Bantam Doubleday, paperback, $13.95).

The Harvard Negotiation Project's Web site offers lots of other resources in addition to books, such as videos of role-playing in various types of negotiations from teaching to treaties. So if you are interested in sharpening your skills in this particular method, I recommend a visit. It gets you thinking about the human nature side of getting what you need, which, after all, is what Mick Jagger was singing about.

And don't forget to check out Next Wave's negotiation showcase, in which we highlight and summarize our offerings on this often mysterious process.