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Negotiating for Mutual Benefit

Getting to Yes and Negotiating For Mutual Benefit

One of the most popular books on negotiations is Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher and William Ury, originally published in 1981. The basic premise of the book is that

“Behind opposed positions lie shared and compatible interests, as well as conflicting ones. We tend to assume that because the other side’s positions are opposed to ours, their interests must also be opposed. If we have an interest in defending ourselves, then they must want to attack us. If we have an interest in minimizing the rent, then their interest must be to maximize it. In many negotiations, however, a close examination of the underlying interests will reveal the existence of many more interests that are shared or compatible than ones that are opposed.” (p. 4)

Following earlier scholarship (but without any attribution), they call this style of win-win negotiation “integrative” bargaining, a way to address areas of common concern. Rather than fighting over pieces of the pie, as it were, the two parties find a way to make the pie bigger. This method is also often called “interest-based bargaining.”

As mentioned below, this style of negotiating will not work or produce good results in every situation, but this method is well-suited to workplaces where employers and employees are genuinely interested in negotiating for mutual benefit. It is also a good model for small-scale suppliers and values-aligned wholesale buyers, such as food co-ops.

How it works #

Fisher and Ury describe four principles to work toward integrative (mutual benefit) bargaining, and Wikipedia provides a helpful synopsis of them:

1. “Separate the people from the problem” #

The first principle of Getting to Yes—“Separate the people from the problem”—applies to the interaction between the two parties to a negotiation.  The authors point out that negotiators are people first—people who have different values, cultural backgrounds, and emotions.  The relationship between parties tends to become entangled with the problem that the parties are discussing; therefore, issues of perception, emotion, and communication need to be addressed during a negotiation. 

Concerning perception, the authors note that it is important for a negotiator to understand how the other party views an issue. Ways to accomplish this include “Put yourself in their shoes,” “Discuss each other’s perceptions,” and “Face-saving: Make your proposals consistent with their values.”

Concerning emotion, the authors encourage negotiators to explore the causes of both their own and the other party’s emotions.  Techniques may be needed to defuse anger, such as allowing the other party to voice grievances and to provide an apology as a symbolic gesture.

Concerning communication, the authors point out three common problems and give suggestions to prevent or solve them:

  • Not speaking with the other party in a direct and clear manner;
  • Not actively listening to the other party, but instead only listening to rebut the other party’s statements; and
  • Misunderstanding or misinterpreting what the other party has said.

2. “Focus on interests, not positions” #

The second principle—“Focus on interests, not positions”—distinguishes the positions that the parties hold from the interests that led them to those positions. For example, in 1978 Israel and Egypt both held positions about occupying the Sinai Peninsula, but the reasons for the positions were different: Israel was interested in security and Egypt was interested in sovereignty. Addressing the underlying interests of the two nations led to the Egypt–Israel peace treaty of 1979.  The authors recommend that negotiators identify interests, such as the “basic human needs” of “economic well-being” and “control over one’s life,” behind the parties’ positions. Both parties should then discuss their interests and keep an open mind to the other side of the argument, in order to arrive at options that satisfy their respective interests.

3. “Invent options for mutual gain” #

The third principle—“Invent options for mutual gain”—seeks to benefit both parties that are negotiating. To generate options, the authors suggest that the parties brainstorm separately and possibly together. The book describes specific techniques to promote effective brainstorming; for example, a “Circle Chart” diagrams the repeated steps of Problem, Analysis, Approaches, and Action Ideas that should occur. Options can either meet shared interests or meet different interests that are complementary (as in the nursery rhyme “Jack Sprat”). After a suitable option is developed, one side can draft a written agreement to make the decision easy for the other side.

4. “Insist on using objective criteria” #

The fourth principle—“Insist on using objective criteria”—encourages parties to “negotiate on some basis independent of the will of either side.”  This approach can help produce “wise agreements amicably and efficiently,” as in the case of negotiations about the Law of the Sea. Objective criteria can be based on factors such as market value and precedent. The three steps for using objective criteria in negotiations are to jointly search for such criteria, to keep an open mind about which criteria should be chosen to be applied, and to never give in to pressure or threats. The chapter on this principle concludes with an example of objective criteria being used successfully in a negotiation between a person whose car is a total loss and an insurance claims adjuster.

Fisher and Ury also offer suggestions for common obstacles to integrative negotiation, in the form of frequently asked questions. Again, Wikipedia offers helpful summaries:

“What if they are more powerful?” #

If the other side “has a stronger bargaining position,” the authors recommend “Develop Your BATNA—Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement.” The BATNA is “the results you can obtain without negotiating.” The authors give three suggestions to develop a BATNA that both protects the negotiator from accepting an agreement that should be rejected and improves any agreement that is accepted:

  • Creating a list of actions one might take if no agreement is reached
  • Transforming some of the more promising ideas into options
  • Selecting the option that appears best

“What if they won’t play?” #

If the other side demands to use positional bargaining, a negotiator may attempt “negotiation jujitsu.” One method is to ask a third party to mediate. In this “one-text procedure,” the third party explores the parties’ interests and iteratively develops a solution with them. The authors cite the negotiations that led to the 1978 Camp David Accords as an example of the one-text procedure, with the United States drafting agreements between Egypt and Israel.

“What if they use dirty tricks?” #

The authors point to the outcome of the Munich Agreement in 1938 as an example of a negotiator’s failure to address “dirty tricks,” in that case Adolf Hitler’s negotiating tactics with Neville Chamberlain. Instead, the parties should negotiate about the rules of negotiation using the four principles stated earlier in the book. This can overcome tactics such as misrepresentation and psychological pressure.

Later editions of the book include many more suggestions for common issues.

Shortcomings and Critiques of Getting to Yes #

Getting to Yes has enjoyed immense popularity, consistently remaining one of the top-selling business books even decades since its original publication. While many negotiators have found it helpful, it is primarily a business book, and experience has shown that the book is generally more applicable to relatively equal business-to-business negotiations than negotiations across power differences, such as between an employer and employees or between a small vendor and a large wholesaler.

This is just one of many critiques of the book, which, like most business books, relies on selected anecdotes and an advice-based, coaching kind of style rather than rigorous analysis of what works or doesn’t work in practice. Again, the Wikipedia community does us the favor of gathering various critiques of the book.

One common critique of Getting to Yes is that Fisher and Ury describe an alternative approach to negotiating, which they try to distinguish from the more common oppositional approach where a win for one party means a loss for the other. That more familiar style of negotiating is often called “distributional” bargaining1 or “zero-sum” bargaining. Yet negotiations are complicated, and “mutual benefit” possibilities are often intertwined with disagreements and hard bargaining positions. There is a reason why people often emphasize distributional demands in negotiations: those distributional negotiations are almost always the hardest part of a negotiation and demand the most skill, effort, and time. Negotiations also demand accountability on the part of negotiators who are representing some collective, whether that be the workers in a union or members of a producer cooperative. It’s not appropriate to focus on cultivating the negotiating relationship between a management representative and a worker representative, for example, when what matters more are the external demands placed on those representatives by management and by workers. Getting to Yes has little to offer in response to these critiques.2

Takeaways #

At its best, Getting to Yes offers helpful pointers you might not consider in the course of negotiations (especially if discussions start to stumble on strong disagreements), but the book is still far from a “bible” for negotiators. The book is most likely to help parties who are already committed to negotiating in good faith and for mutual benefit.

Don’t be afraid to chart a course that’s different from the one the authors describe, especially if you’re negotiating from a position of disadvantage. Consider seeking help from a skilled negotiator or intermediary. You might also seek out advice from negotiators who are not writing from the perspective of managers and executives.


  1. Following the labor relations scholars Richard Walton and Robert McKersie (A Behavioral Theory of Labor Negotiations, 1965), who Fisher and Ury failed to cite when they adopted Walton and McKersie’s term “integrative” bargaining. ↩︎

  2. James J. White, “The Pros and Cons of ‘Getting to YES.’” Journal of Legal Education 34:1 (1984): 115–24; Ann Martin, “Interest-Based Bargaining: What We’re Learning.” Perspectives on Work 1, no. 2 (1997): 49–53. ↩︎