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Interest-Based, Principled Negotiating

The world is getting a dose of old-fashioned, ineffective positional bargaining. The current occupant of the White House appears to be the primary practitioner. Those of us in the negotiation business had thought the technique had had a wooden stake driven in its heart decades ago. Apparently not.

Harvard Negotiation Project

It has been nearly four decades since Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project offered a far better alternative: Interest-Based, Principled Negotiating, in their ground breaking book, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.

Positional Bargaining

Most of us are familiar with positional bargaining.  One side prepares a series of demands and the other side responds. For instance, a union makes a series of demands on wages, benefits, and work environment. These demands are backed by a constituency who wants the negotiators to drive a hard bargain. After the union representatives present their demands to management, management prepares a response.  Management comes back with strength and offers a counter-proposal that is typically less than the union wants.

The union representatives walk away, consult with their members, and perhaps threaten a strike. They return with a counter-proposal.  Both sides see the other as adversaries and try to squeeze as many concessions from them as possible. Parties, who give in, are considered weak and soft.  Those who hold firm are considered strong.  At the end of the negotiation, both sides usually remain unsatisfied, already planning for their next conflict.

Principled, Interest-based Negotiation as a Better Alternative

Principled negotiation is a welcome alternative to positional bargaining.  Fisher and Ury list four steps to the method.

  1. Separate the people from the problem.

Whether coming from a position of strength or weakness, emotions can get in the way. People’s egos get entangled with the objective merits of a problem. In principled negotiating, people’s feelings are disentangled from the substance of the conflict. Emotional containment permits the problem to be attacked, not each other.

  1. Focus on interests, not positions.

A negotiating position often obscures what a party wants. Underlying every position is an interest, sometimes many interests. Interests deal with people’s underlying motives, needs, desires, concerns, and fears. An interest is what causes you to decide on a position — reconciling interests rather than positions works because most interests can be satisfied in a variety of ways.  When you look behind opposed positions for the motivating interests, you can often find alternative positions that will meet some of the interests of both parties. Behind the opposed positions lie shared and compatible interests, as well as conflicting ones.  Shared interests and differing interests provide the building blocks for a wise and lasting negotiation.

  1. Generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do.

Invent options for mutual gain. Brainstorm. List. Avoid premature judgment. Avoid searching for a single answer.  Engage everyone in generating options. Invite the group to note the most promising ideas. Strengthen those. Tweak them. Name whether underlying interests are likely to be met. Point out that there may be more than one best solution. Positional bargaining often leads to parties getting stuck.  In principled negotiating, people are freed to be imaginative. Principled negotiating engenders collective imagination.

  1. Insist that the result is based on objective criteria.

The final step is to identify objective criteria to evaluate options. Optimistic talk about win-win solutions does not conceal the reality that often interests conflict. Neither does bullying. Differences cannot be swept under the rug for long. Positional bargainers attempt to deal with differences by talking about what they are and are not willing to accept.  Hard bargainers give bottom lines and arbitrary deadlines. They stake out extreme positions well beyond what the other party wants in the hope that the other party will be “weak” and cave. Soft bargainers make generous offers seeking to preserve peace and friendship. In both scenarios, the negotiation deteriorates into a contest between wills. Rarely is the negotiation efficient or amicable.

The solution is to negotiate on the basis that is independent of the will of either side—that is, by using objective criteria.  The selected solution should be based on principle, not pressure or whim that fails to stand the test of time.  Identifying the appropriate objective standard reduces the role of emotions in the negotiation. It engages the creativity and imagination of the parties again.

Positional bargaining rarely advances our interests when we bring deep hopes, fears, and passions to a negotiation. With positional bargaining, a problematic negotiation frequently sets the stage for future conflict.  When using interest-based, principled negotiation, not only can practical outcomes be achieved, the results can be healing. Mutual problem solving can replace protracted conflict.

Principled negotiating is not always successful. Sometimes parties’ interests do not intersect. However, whether negotiating international treaties between global powers or a spat among neighbors on where to locate a new park, interest-based, principled negotiating can be remarkably effective.  Conflict is inevitable, but it need not be toxic, debilitating, or ineffective.

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