Thursday, May 19, 2005

Book — Getting to YES — Fisher, Patton & Ury


Negotiation is not just a matter of trying to split the difference between two established positions in a zero-sum fashion, and thus not a battle of wills as to where on the continuum the split is finally decided. Principled negotiation is conducted by rational actors, setting aside personalities; and looks at other factors that reflect the underlying, possibly unspoken, interests of the parties involved, exploring possible mutually beneficial outcomes. Where necessary, arbitrartion, primarily in the form of appeal to objective (or at least disinterested) standards should be used to establish the worth of any components of a potential outcome.

If faced with an uncooperative partner in negotiation, the acceptability of an outcome should be judged by comparison with what can be achieved without agreement. Fixed positions and intransigent partners should be encouraged into negotiation by treating their statements as a sincere attempt at dialogue, whereas attempts to use tricks should be regarded as shifting the discussion from negotiation on the overt matter at hand into a meta-negotiation about the conduct of the negotiation.


It is clear that the book focuses on the negotiator as a rational agent in the sense in which the term is used in the context of economics. Indeed, the whole idea that negotiation can be eased by broadening the discussion beyond a simple zero-sum is fundamental to economics, that transactions take place that are win-win i.e. wealth is created by trade, not merely moved about. The agenda of the book can then be seen as one in which the negotiation is turned into an economic transaction between rational agents, both by the appeal to externally set standards, and by setting aside personalities and any associated non-zero-sum emotional payoffs of the form “They'd rather be right.”

There is less coherence to the second part of the book, which tries to cover the many ways in which negotiations can be subverted. The idea of knowing what the best you can do without an agreement is a sensible one, to provide a well thought out bottom line, to know when an agreement would be disadvantageous. The other chapters primarily suggest a strategy for an appeal to the counter-party's better nature, by attempting to draw them into discussion either about the substance of the negotiation, or at least into “talks about talks”


The book provides a manifesto for straight dealing, backed up with some real world examples drawn from difficult situations. However, despite the optimistic anecdotes from the eastern Mediterranean and from Northern Ireland, the fact that these disputes still remain unresolved to this day shows that there are still limits to the approach. If the parties to a negotiation cannot shake off emotional attachments to irreconcilable positions (either iof their own, or of their constituents), all the will in the world cannot lead to agreement. They may not even lead to a best alternative.

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