Thinking About “Getting To Yes”

(Photo: Kyle MacDonald / Creative Commons)


By Kevin R. Convey

 I’ve negotiated for things all my life – many jobs, half a dozen cars, two homes, a stainless steel bracelet from a sullen African vendor in Marseilles and an antique brass mortar and pestle from a grumpy Greek in an Athens bazaar He hammered the thing so hard after we settled on a price that my ears were ringing for the rest of the day.

But I didn’t truly understand some aspects of negotiation from the inside out until our exercise in Jeremy Caplan’s class on Monday. And that despite preparing to negotiate the terms of my most recent newspaper job by studying the classic book on negotiation, “Getting to Yes” (Fisher and Ury, Penguin).

The thing about “Getting to Yes” is that it trains you to consider your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) and that of your negotiating partner – the book eschews terms such as “opponent” as counterproductive urging you to try to see to your, well, opponent, as a partner in a joint venture to reach an agreement.

And “Getting to Yes” also counsels you in several other ways. It suggests that you separate people from the problem, focus on interests rather than positions, invent negotiating options for mutual gain and insist in using objective criteria.

The problem, of course, is that while it’s easy to arrive at your own BATNA – since I was happy in my job at the time, mine was simply to stay put – it’s hard to know what your partner’s is, especially if he will not share it with you. In my case, my partner had said there were no other candidates – suggesting that his BATNA was less palatable than mine — but it was such an astonishing admission from a veteran negotiator that I suspected it was ploy. Knowing my BATNA – and being at peace with it — allowed me to react to what I considered a first, low-ball offer by revealing it.  If a better offer were not forthcoming — and I suggested what that might be, higher than I would actually settle for, to create some room for negotiation — I would happily stay put.

“Getting to Yes” also places great stock on identifying your own interests – what’s most important to you in the negotiation — and in trying to determine you partner’s. Again, though, the problem is, you can guess at your partner’s interests and you can ask. But if he will not reveal what is most important to him in the negotiation, you are stuck. In my negotiation, every effort I made to learn this so I could bargain a better outcome for both sides was met with a stone wall. What the other side really wanted, it seemed, was to buy me as cheaply as possible.

Fisher and Ury confront this problem as well in their chapter called “What if They Won’t Play?” But every attempt I made to use their suggested negotiation jiujitsu techniques wound up flat on its back on the mat. No dice. In the end, we managed to settle on the only thing that seemed to matter to them – my salary. They spent more than they wanted on me, and I accepted less than I’d hoped for. I suppose mutual disappointment is as good a definition of a successful negotiation as anything else.

But what was interesting about our in-class role-playing was the mutually assured destruction aspect of it. You could clearly see in each game – in a way it’s hard to see during an actual negotiation – that greedy behavior ultimately punishes both sides. The best results consistently came about from a share-the-pie, live and let live approach to the negotiations. It was eye-opening.

But here’s what I wonder about: What we did in class was an exercise, with very little at stake besides learning something and trying to do it well. Had I gone into my job negotiation with that approach – moderating my own expectations in the hope the other side would reciprocate for mutual gain, I wonder what would have happened. Somehow, I doubt I would have made out as well in the real world as I did in the classroom.





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