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Thinking Out Loud

A Leadership Notebook: Negotiating Difference

by Michael Jinkins | Apr 17, 2015


Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!


TOLLeadership041715Of the great insights that have emerged in the study of leadership over the past generation, none have been more important than those shared by Roger Fisher and William Ury (et al) of the Harvard Negotiation Project. Many ideas that leaders in education, industry, politics, diplomacy and religion now take for granted were first formulated in the project.

Together, Fisher and Ury published, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981). A string of other valuable resources followed: Getting Together: Building Relationships As We Negotiate (co-authored by Roger Fisher and Scott Brown; New York: Viking/Penguin, 1988); Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations (authored by William Ury; New York: Bantam Books, 1991); and Beyond Machiavelli: Tools for Coping with Conflict [co-authored by Roger Fisher, Elizabeth (Kopelman) Borgwardt and Andrea Kupfer Schneider; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994]. These books are consistently evaluated among the most valuable resources I assign in courses and workshops on conflict and negotiation.

In Getting to Yes, Fisher and Ury say that the spark which got the whole project going was a question: “What is the best way for people to deal with their differences?”

They cast a broad net when dealing with differences: a lawsuit arising from a car accident, a dispute among corporate leaders attempting to engage in a joint venture, a city official meeting with union leaders to avert a transit strike, a Secretary of State trying to negotiate an agreement limiting nuclear weapons, or a married couple discussing whose turn it is to pick up the children from daycare and who should get supper started. Negotiating our differences is a common feature of life. Some of the insights shared in these books emerged from the negotiation of major international situations, such as President Jimmy Carter’s Camp David Accord. Any pastor or school principal will immediately resonate to the wisdom, even if the differences being negotiated are on a much more intimate scale than Middle Eastern relations.

Among the insights that I have found most valuable – and which a generation of leaders have used most often – is this: “Arguing over positions produces unwise agreements.”

Using a variety of stories from an array of leadership situations, they introduce a set of revolutionary insights under the banner of “principled negotiation or negotiation on the merits,” which “can be boiled down to four basic points:”

  • “Separate the people from the problem.”
  • “Focus on interests, not positions.”
  • “Generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do.”
  • “Insist that the result be based on some objective standards.”

Rather than casting those who have a difference as opponents, they say: “Figuratively if not literally, the participants [in a negotiation] should come to see themselves as working side by side, attacking the problem, not each other.” Depersonalizing the situation can significantly reduce the animus among disagreeing parties. Every effort should be made to grant the assumption that everyone involved wants the best possible outcome for everyone. This is a basic step in negotiations that is neglected at considerable peril. And the second point they make is, if anything, even more important because when people assume negotiating positions, they “often obscure what [they] really want.” Thus it is crucial for all parties to discern and communicate what their actual interests or needs are, and not to focus on their bargaining positions.

In one story in the project’s resources, a sort of fable is told about two children arguing over the last orange in the family kitchen. The parent, tired of the hearing the argument, cuts the orange in half and hands half to each child. Unfortunately, the solution didn’t address the actual interests of the children. One child needed the peel of an orange for a recipe while her sibling just wanted to eat an orange. As it happened, one girl took her half outside, promptly peeling the orange and throwing the peel away; while the other girl peeled her half, throwing away the meat of the orange and grating the peel (unfortunately too little to make a success of her recipe). If their parent had helped the children articulate their actual interests (rather than their bargaining positions: “I want the last orange!”) the needs of both children could have been happily (and more successfully) met. As small and domestic as this story is, it expresses an insight that has proven enormously helpful in all sorts of negotiations.

About ten years after the publication of Getting to Yes, Ury wrote a sequel, Getting Past No, where he dealt with a problem that many people in leadership have expressed: What do you do when your potential partner in a negotiation is reluctant or unwilling to negotiate in good faith?

I have found Ury’s Getting Past No as valuable if not more valuable than his and Fisher’s Getting to Yes. But “getting past no” requires a great deal more than just reframing an issue, as important as reframing undoubtedly is. “Getting past no,” according to Ury, requires a five-step strategy that has as much to do with managing oneself as it does with managing the game of negotiations. As Ury explains, “To get past no, you must overcome each of these barriers to cooperation: [the other person’s] negative emotions, … negotiating habits, … skepticism about the benefits of agreement, … perceived power, and your reaction.”

Ury explains how we can learn not to react when we feel angry or afraid by “going to the balcony.” He offers great tactics for finding emotional distance in the midst of a conflict so that we can respond in an emotionally appropriate (and wise) manner, rather than merely reacting from our limbic system.

He also explains how we can learn to disarm someone who sees himself or herself as an opponent by “stepping to their side” and consciously reflecting on the problem at hand from the perspective of the other person. It is often true that the other person simply does not feel listened to, so, we should make every effort to give them a hearing.

Other basic “active listening” skills can really help diffuse a tense situation: Listen more than you talk; paraphrase the arguments being made by the other person and ask them for clarification to make sure you understand them as they want to be understood (rather than caricaturing and stereotyping the “other side”); acknowledge the feelings and perspective of the other person; agree when it is appropriate (and honest) to do so; accumulate all the yeses you can in the course of negotiating; show respect for the other person’s authority and competence; make clear “I” statements and avoid blaming “you” statements.

These are just a few of the tactics Ury teaches. Perhaps the best of his insight is the one he borrows from Sun Tzu (author of The Art of War): “Build your adversary a golden bridge to retreat across.” He reminds us that a gloating winner is a real loser, and that often someone on the verge of negotiating the right outcome loses everything by causing the other person to lose face.

Fifteen years of knowledge and wisdom garnered by the Harvard Negotiation Project cannot be communicated in a blog, and some of the most helpful insights are contained in the final book in the series which deals specifically with conflict, Beyond Machiavelli. It is in this book that Fisher, Kopelman and Schneider offer a particularly powerful insight:

“Our purpose in managing conflict cannot be to end all differences. Each party will always see its own reality – each will have strong partisan perceptions about the conflict and his or her role in it. A more useful question than ‘Who is right?’ is: ‘Given these strong partisan perceptions, how can we move forward?’ We need to find a way to cope with conflict despite the fact that people have differences.”

Can we get an “Amen”?

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