In this post I want to try something new. Rather than writing an article, I'll capture a dialog between Joe and I as we discuss a topic that interests us both.

On Joe's recommendation, I recently read Getting to Yes , written by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton for the Harvard Negotiation Project. The book is nearly thirty years old, but it has been continuously updated and it still contains lessons worth learning. As I read the book I found that I was already using some of the techniques, but there were many more that either I hadn't been exposed to or that I was employing only partially, and as a result I was being less effective than I could be. Even more importantly, the book taught me an overall framework for thinking about negotiation that I can now use to improve both my personal and professional life.

Initially, when I looked at the description and ordered the book, I didn't realize how generally useful and applicable it would be. I was thinking in the context of formal negotiation, which I find myself involved in perhaps only once or twice per month. But as I read it I realized that I'm involved in some form of negotiation nearly every day. Many of my interactions with the important people in my life include micro-negotiations and transactions that I hadn't explicitly noticed as such.

When I'm working with my wife to come up with a plan for the day, it's an opportunity to envision a great solution. When I'm asking my kids to do chores, get to bed on time, or come with me on a family outing, I need to keep their needs and interests in mind. When there is an argument, it's a reminder to separate the people from the problem. When I'm divvying up work with members of my team, it's a chance to negotiate a structure that works well for all. And when I'm working with a customer to devise a solution for their business, that's a chance to optimize our shared interests.

In each of these situations, I want an outcome that I can be proud of and that is fair for all the parties involved. Once I realized that negotiations make up a large portion of my life - a portion that can be quite stressful when handled poorly - I dove into the book with relish. When I was done reading, I had used up an entire highlighter and had learned many important lessons. So let's get into this discussion. I can't wait to hear what Joe has to say and what his experience with the book was.

Jason: Thanks for recommending Getting to Yes, Joe. As you were reading it, what made you think this would be a book I would enjoy? What was the point at which you thought, “I should recommend this book to Jason?”

Joe: Having worked with you for a decade and a half now I've seen how you interact with customers, employees, and CEOs. As I read through the techniques, there were items that I saw you doing naturally - for example focusing on interests instead of positions and separating the people from the problems - but there was so much in this book that crystalized what you were doing subconsciously and so many tools that I was excited to use in my own life that I just had to recommend it.

I also started feeling like I was highlighting more of the book than I wasn't highlighting. My first highlight was about a sixth of the way in. It's a good example of something I know to be true but it was such a great reminder. My first highlight was:

The ability to see the situation as the other side sees it, as difficult as it may be, is one of the most important skills a negotiator can possess.

I remember in high school debate class training for a debate not knowing which side I would defend. That level of knowledge of both sides helped me understand the topic better than almost any other technique. Applying that same level of dedication to understanding the opponent's arguments, negotiating in good faith, and refuting their central point is so powerful in everyday conversation that it's worth repeating often.

Jason: That's a great point and something that stuck with me as well. The book hits on the idea that active listening is an integral part of a negotiation. The definition of active listening is to focus on the other person completely, without reverting to what you think of the situation. Instead of thinking about how you want to respond, or cataloging the ways in which you disagree, the focus changes into actively discovering what the other person values and where they are coming from, in order to uncover the underlying motivations that drive their positions.

I was initially surprised at the emphasis the book put on this. I expected them to focus more on techniques for successful debate - for arguing your side and for winning your position. But they explained the difference really well. Actively listening to someone in order to fully understand where they are coming from doesn't mean you have to agree with them. Whether you agree or disagree comes later, but if you don't understand them, you are handicapping yourself in the goal of finding a true and fair solution. So yeah, I loved that part of the book and I also find it super challenging. Because the type of conversation you have to have with someone means you are, by definition, making yourself vulnerable and open in order to fully understand where they are coming from. When a negotiation is challenging, contentious, or taps into your own emotional weak spots, using this technique can be very, very hard. But I also think it's very, very worth it. This one technique has the incredible power of turning a destructive conversation into a productive one!

My first highlight was a full paragraph on page 21:

…people get angry, depressed, fearful, hostile, frustrated, and offended. They have egos that are easily threatened, They see the world from their own personal vantage point, and they frequently confuse their perception from reality. Routinely they fail to interpret what you say in the way you intend and do not mean what you understand them to say. Misunderstanding can reinforce prejudice and lead to reactions that produce counteractions in a vicious circle; rational exploration of possible solutions becomes impossible and a negotiation fails. The purpose of the game becomes scoring points, confirming negative impressions, and apportioning blame at the expense of the substantive interests of both parties.

Wow - how true is that!

Joe: I remember that snippet clearly! I was almost certain I highlighted it myself, but when I went back to check I found it wasn't highlighted, thanks for reminding me. A good lesson for me to take away after I read that was when to think about pruning negotiations that are unlikely to be negotiated in good faith or when to put extra effort into getting things back on track. I suppose that's just another way of saying that it's important to know to pick your battles, but I think in this case it's deeper than that. Recognizing when one side isn't fully engaged or even willing to want a good win-win outcome can help me understand the framework of the conversation. Once I know the framework, I can more effectively operate within it.

This is jumping forward quite a bit, but I really liked the second half of the book's examples. It did a good job of highlighting a few challenging conversations and how one might negotiate them. That section for me was the next best thing to putting the guidelines into practice in my life.

The first section, ‘Separating the People From the Problem’, had so many gems. This section was half negotiation advice and half relationship advice. I felt like there were many techniques I could apply to my day to day communications whether or not I'm in active negotiation. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Don't blame for your problem - This reminded me of a quote I saw that sums this up. I don't know the source: “When you fight, it's not you against each other, it's both of you against the problem.”
  • Discuss each other's perceptions - There are so many opportunities to find a win-win situation if you just understand everyone's perceptions of the problem and their unique values.
  • Look for opportunities to act inconsistently with negative perceptions - I love this! I found a couple of years ago that trying a “yes and…” technique that my wife taught me from an improv class got me further in getting people to care about security than simply telling people no. You want to create a new feature? Yes! Let's do it, but in a security and privacy-minded way. Let me help you solve your problem.
  • Give a stake in the outcome - I've started conducting Engineering Leadership Team summits a couple of times each year. These are opportunities for us to tackle big issues we want to see solved on the team. On my first summit, I assigned tasks somewhat arbitrarily and little got done. The second summit I asked people to commit to the process and the outcomes. This simple change allowed each person to claim their solutions and dedicate themselves to completing them.

I think one of the things this book does well is to show how you can use emotion as an asset. I've spent a lot of my career trying to manage my emotion and become more analytical. It's a good goal to be balanced, but not to be robotic. This book has reminded me to find that balance.

Jason: I think being overly analytical is an occupational hazard in this industry! I know that a large portion of my professional and personal development over the past twenty years has been to develop a better sense of empathy for other's emotional states and to take the human factor into account when leading teams or driving to a desired outcome. Not that I was ever a scorched earth kind of guy, but while coming up through the ranks in software companies, I definitely internalized the fact that an ability to get results was more highly valued than an ability to work nicely with others. I do think that culture has shifted somewhat over the years.

This is probably a good time to talk about BATNA or the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. This idea is so powerful, it's probably the single most impactful thing I learned from the book. It's the concept that you should not only understand your own best alternatives, in the case that negotiations break down, but also the other side's alternatives. This knowledge gives you a sense of how much leverage each party has during the negotiation. If you are clear on your alternatives then you can get a better deal, because you know what your bottom line is. Similarly, if you know the other side's alternatives, then you have a better sense of what might be possible during the negotiation with them, and what might be out of bounds. One of the common examples they used was a job negotiation and how much more leverage you have if you come to the meeting with multiple offers in hand.

Then they take the concept further. For example, it is human nature for the position you are negotiating to feel of outsized importance. The very act of arguing for something entrenches you. “When you are trying to catch an airplane your goal may seem tremendously important; looking back on it, you see you could have caught the next plane.” Knowing your BATNA can help you avoid this trap because you have an escape hatch out of the negotiation if you need it. Alternatively, you may realize that your BATNA is truly lousy. In that case, you may become more realistic and be willing to accept a deal that would have otherwise been unpalatable. Either way, by gaining clarity on the alternative to a negotiated agreement, you will act more effectively inside the negotiation, avoiding the temptation to become overly committed to an outcome or making the mistake of having unrealistic expectations for what the negotiation can accomplish. “The relative negotiating power of two parties depends primarily upon how attractive to each is the option of not reaching an agreement.”

Joe: The Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement section was mind-blowing for me. It was like discovering a secret weapon. You said at the beginning of this conversation that you were expecting this book to be more about formal negotiation, but that there were some great concepts that can be applied elsewhere in your life. So much of this book is really useful, but the BATNA is where it went to the next level for me. Figuring out your BATNA and imagining the other side's BATNA is priceless.

In a job or salary negotiation you might unconsciously assume that your BATNA is that you can walk away and make twice as much at some other place, or that other companies will be beating down the door to hire you, but it might be just as likely that you can make this current position the perfect place for you to grow. Having a true BATNA means that you know your alternatives and you have a certain level of commitment to them.

As you understand the BATNAs in play it can help to structure the negotiation. If your BATNA is good you can choose to show your hand and bring that information into the discussion. It’s true that showing your BATNA may have some unintended consequences. For example, the other party may have imagined your BATNA to be even better, so showing it may weaken your position, but it is more likely to be useful in establishing a clear floor for negotiation.

Besides you, I’ve recommended this book to many other people. Even if you’re not in a position where you negotiate frequently, the techniques mentioned in this book are really useful. Recently I used these techniques to help two friends work through some relationship challenges they were having. I realized about five minutes into their conversation that I was accidentally acting as an arbitrator. Once I realized that, I was able to engage in helping both sides come to a reasonable solution and commit to improving their relationship together.

Jason: It’s interesting that you mention the story about acting as a mediator between your friends. It’s been a surprise - but this book has made more of an impact on my personal life than my professional life. I guess I never realized how many interactions are, in essence, a negotiation. In my work life, I am involved in important negotiations, but this occurs relatively infrequently. In my personal life, I regularly find myself in small negotiations with friends and family. Whether it’s picking a restaurant for dinner or dealing with someone’s hurt feelings, many day to day interactions can take on the flavor of a mini-negotiation.

While it would be weird to pull out every technique from this book and turn all these interactions into ‘formal’ negotiations, what I’ve found is that many of the smaller tips have resulted in a better quality of life for myself and those around me. Active listening, looking past stated positions, tuning into what other people are truly interested in, and separating the problem from the person has served me well in a variety of contexts. I guess what I’m saying is that I found this book worth reading because it makes me a better person overall, not just someone who can negotiate more effectively in a professional setting.

Joe: This book has really shown me that there is a lot to think about in conversations, relationships, and negotiations. I recognize that it’s dangerous to read a book and feel like you suddenly have all the answers, so I’ve tried to apply these techniques in a thoughtful way. I remember when I first learned about active listening I tried to follow the technique formulaically and it made my interactions feel false. The techniques are good, but they need to be internalized and practiced. Rereading my highlights and co-authoring this post with you have helped me commit the important parts to memory. I imagine this is a book I will reread every few years as a refresh. As they say, a little knowledge can be dangerous. Trying to apply these techniques to conversations in a naive way might make the other party feel like you’re being manipulative, which would almost certainly lead to a poor outcome, both for the negotiation and your relationship.

Despite the words of caution, I think this is an exceptional book, one that I’ll continue to recommend to colleagues and anybody else who would like to improve how they navigate negotiations. I would place this book in a similar tier as Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for both the broad spectrum of people who should read it and the likelihood it has to improve one’s day to day life.

Jason: Great insights Joe! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject and I look forward to more discussion in the future.

Readers, have you read Getting to Yes? If so, did it make a difference in your life?

Please subscribe to our newsletter. Each month we send out a newsletter with news summaries and links to our last few posts. Don’t miss it!