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Updated: 29 Jul 2017

Getting to Yes (book review)

Getting to Yes


A revised edition of this landmark book from the early-eighties . Still a worthwhile introductory read for today's novice negotiator.

Level: Beginners
Categories: Academics and Historians
Publication Date: 2006-11-28

by Roger Fisher & William Ury

‘Getting to Yes – Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In’ by Roger Fisher and William Ury was first published in 1981 and has become a classic read for any novice interested in learning negotiation skills.

The reader should be aware however, while although still a very useful read, negotiation theory has not remained static over the years. Many negotiation writers have challenged some aspects of Fisher and Urys model and approach, as negotiation itself has evolved due to rapid changes in business.

The four point steps which defines the slant to the Fisher and Ury method offers a novel and invigorating style to conducting negotiations in our fast paced and ever changing business climate. Their methodology opposes the fixed-pie mentality which still predominates much of our negotiating culture.

The problem as seen at a glance reveals how we all too often become embroiled in an unnecessary and embittered tussle over entrenched positions. Many deals have collapsed because the participants could not see the forest for the trees. In other words they failed to see the bigger picture, and focused too much on winning instead of making a mutually profitable deal.

The authors were also the first to coin the acronym BATNA which stands for ‘Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement’. This term essentially describes the need to conceive of creating and developing back-up plans when all else fails. Invariably, not even our best intentions to find agreement will necessarily come to fruition.

Getting to Yes remains the single most popularly read negotiation book when we poll our clients entering our Sales Negotiation Training and Procurement Negotiation Training courses.

The Method in a Nutshell

The first two stages outlined by the authors encourage us to separate the people from the problem by focusing on interests and not our mutual positions. We are then encouraged to invent options for mutual gain and finally, we must insist on using objective criteria in being realistic in establishing standards.

Here’s the process outlined in more detail.

1. Separate the People from the Problem

We cant deal with a problem when people misunderstand each other and emotions run rampant. As business people or leaders in our respective organisations, we probably like to view ourselves as logical and level headed when it comes to solving knotty issues, disputes, and problem solving. However, we are all influenced by our upbringing, culture, and simply by being emotional humans.

We all perceive our world differently and often take different if not opposing viewpoints when handling a problem or dispute with another person. We tend to approach a problem or dispute with our own unique perspective often giving little or any regard to the other persons perspective. This is a narrow approach to problem solving and is often a recipe for conflict and disaster.

Fisher and Ury suggest that every person involved in negotiation or dispute resolution has two separate kinds of interests. The first is the substantive which entails our own respective interests, while the second interest entails the interpersonal relationship between the two parties. The main problem occurs when the relationship becomes entwined with the problem being addressed. In positional negotiation the problem becomes personal as the two separate interests become emotionally enmeshed with each other.

The people problem is seen as stemming from one or more of three basic categories being;

  1. Perception
  2. Emotion
  3. Communication

By stepping back and analysing the problem area where we have become sidetracked, we can address the conflict from a more realistic perspective while establishing a clearer understanding of the positions of both sides. We accomplish this by focusing on the underlying interests instead of the emotional burrs which are causing the irritation in our interaction.

2. Focus on Interests Not Positions

The issue here can simply be summed up by saying that we tend to become fixated on our respective positions, attempting to find agreement on a particular position which rarely works. The positions often directly result in conflict between each others emotional basis which forms the foundation for our respective positions.

Rather, what we need to understand and determine are the real interests which are the basis and substance for the positions adopted by both parties. These fundamental issues are our real interests that can be both conflicting and compatible in kind. The question we usually ask is What do you want?, when the more important question which we fail more often to ask is Why do you want this? instead.

There is a purpose behind every position, and without knowing the purpose or reason that is the real motivator, it then becomes virtually impossible to really identify or appreciate the problem which actually needs to be addressed.

Fisher and Ury realised that our most powerful interests relate to basic fundamental human needs. These include our need for security, economic well-being, a sense of belonging, recognition, and a control over ones life. They point out that these fundamental needs do not just relate to individuals but also should be extended to any group involved in the negotiation process whether it be corporate entities, organisations or even nations.

We have to acknowledge not only our interests but, perhaps even more importantly, the other sides interests as well. Through active and involved dialogue and communication, both parties can gain a better understanding and acknowledgement of each others interests. Only when we have properly identified the full scope of the problem can or should we even begin to look at solutions.

Mutual Options for Mutual Gain

Fisher and Ury point out that even though people succeed in diagnosing the problem we still tend to take the view that our answer and our answer alone is the correct response. It is not a natural tendency to be creative in developing alternatives to effectively solve the dispute. They state that there four obstacles which we must first overcome;

  • Premature judgement
  • Searching for the single answer
  • The assumption of the fixed pie
  • Thinking that solving their problem is their problem

They suggest that we should first invent our options and then decide on the best mutual course of action after both parties have brainstormed the problem in a cooperative fashion. We can multiply options by moving between specific aspects of the individual issues and the overall problem itself. Most disputes generally tend to have multiple components which can be addressed by defining the problem; analysing the causes into categories; considering possible strategies and using broad thinking to resolve the issues; and by looking at what specific steps could be taken.

The purpose of the above exercise should be to take an approach of mutual gain by establishing your shared interests. For example, one common shared interest might be the integrity and the future of our relationship with our counterpart in the negotiation or dispute.They maintain that it is possible to find agreement through disagreement by suggesting several options as proposals which are acceptable to us and asking our counterpart to respond in kind. The key to convincing them to agree is to make their decision an easy one to make.

Insist on Using Objective Criteria

In the final phase Fisher and Ury again stress that we must avoid the pitfall of getting into a battle of wills. They say that we negotiate on the basis of using objective criteria instead. Objective criteria could be market value, replacement cost, industry standards, precedent, reciprocity, efficiency, or any applicable principle which denotes a true reflection of what is realistically fair and reasonable. Don’t be shy about seeking out the advice of experts.

The authors say there are three basic points to remember:

  • Frame each issue as a mutual search for objective criteria.
  • Be both reasonable and open to reason as to which standards should be used and how they should be applied.
  • Never bend to pressure, only to principle.

Even before considering the terms to an agreement, it is often better to first agree on the particular objective criteria or standards that should be applied. Simply put, if we use the criteria that our counterpart proposed, we now can use it as a lever to persuade them more effectively.

Regardless of how effectively we might try to implement these four step principles into practice, and our counterpart is not amendable to being reasonable, then we have to weigh whether we will accept their position, or walk away from the talks and resort to our best alternative. Finally, don’t let yourself be bogged down solely by company policy or procedure. There’s an exception to every rule, and everything is negotiable.


We all want to negotiate the best possible deal, but we have to remember there is often more at stake than our personal interests and egos involved in the process. We can solve more problems if we understand the underlying interests, and we can create durable relationships if we don’t let ourselves work at cross purposes in finding mutually creative and beneficial solutions.

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