20 insights: Getting to Yes

“Getting to Yes” is one of the most recommended negotiation book. It was first published in 1981 and many experts consider this book as the first business book that helped in codifying the principles behind negotiations and leading to its systematic study. My Getting to Yes summary and notes are as follows



A negotiation method may be fairly judged by three criteria:

  1. It should produce a wise agreement if agreement is possible

  2. It should be efficient

  3. It should improve or at least not damage the relationship between the parties



In positional bargaining, a hard game dominates a soft one

When negotiators bargain over positions, they tend to lock themselves into those positions. Your ego becomes identified with your position. You now have a new interest in “saving face”—in reconciling future action with past positions—making it less and less likely that any agreement will wisely reconcile the parties’ original interests. If some 150 countries are negotiating, as in various United Nations conferences, positional bargaining is next to impossible. It may take all to say yes, but only one to say no. Pursuing a soft and friendly form of positional bargaining makes you vulnerable to someone who plays a hard game of positional bargaining. 



Separate the people from the problem

Participants in a negotiation should come to see themselves as working side by side, attacking the problem, not each other. For example: within the family, a statement such as “The kitchen is a mess” or “Our bank account is low” may be intended simply to identify a problem, but it is likely to be heard as a personal attack.

People problems can be classified into 3 categories:

  1. Perception

  2. Emotion

  3. Communication



In negotiation, it is easy to forget that you must deal not only with their people problems, but also with your own.

Your anger and frustration may obstruct an agreement beneficial to you. Your perceptions are likely to be one- sided, and you may not be listening or communicating adequately.



Understanding the other side’s thinking is not simply a useful activity that will help you solve your problem. Their thinking is the problem

Conflict lies not in objective reality, but in people’s heads. Truth is simply one more argument—perhaps a good one, perhaps not—for dealing with the difference. The difference itself exists because it exists in their thinking. Fears, even if ill-founded, are real fears and need to be dealt with. Hopes, even if unrealistic, may cause a war. Facts, even if established, may do nothing to solve the problem.

Look for opportunities to act inconsistently with their perceptions. Perhaps the best way to change someone’s perceptions is to send them a message different from what they expect. The visit of Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in November 1977 provides an outstanding example of such an action. At the time, Israelis saw Sadat and Egypt as their enemy, the man and country that had launched a surprise attack on them four years before. To alter that perception, to help persuade the Israelis that he too desired peace, Sadat flew to the capital of his enemies, a disputed capital that not even the United States, Israel’s best friend, had recognized as the capital of Israel. Instead of acting as an enemy, Sadat acted as a partner. Without this dramatic move, it is hard to imagine the signing of an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979.



Many emotions in negotiation are driven by a core set of five interests:

  1. Autonomy: the desire to make your own choices and control your own fate

  2. Appreciation: the desire to be recognized and valued

  3. Affiliation: the desire to belong as an accepted member of some peer group

  4. Role: the desire to have a meaningful purpose

  5. Status: the desire to feel fairly seen and acknowledged



Letting off steam may make it easier to talk rationally later

People obtain psychological release through the simple process of recounting their grievances to an attentive audience. If you come home wanting to tell your husband about everything that went wrong at the office, you will become even more frustrated if he says, “Don’t bother telling me; I’m sure you had a hard day. Let’s skip it.” The same is true for negotiators.



There are three big problems in communication:

  1. Negotiators may not be talking to each other, or at least not in such a way as to be understood. Frequently each side has given up on the other and is no longer attempting any serious communication with it. Instead they talk merely to impress third parties or their own constituency

  2. Even if you are talking directly and clearly to them, they may not be hearing you. Or you may not be hearing them. You may be so busy thinking about what you are going to say next, how you are going to respond to that last point or how you are going to frame your next argument, that you forget to listen to what the other side is saying now

  3. Misunderstanding. What one says, the other may misinterpret



It has been said that the cheapest concession you can make to the other side is to let them know they have been heard

One can at the same time understand perfectly and disagree completely with what the other side is saying. But unless you can convince them that you do grasp how they see it, you may be unable to get them to hear when you explain your viewpoint to them. Once you have made their case for them, then come back with the problems you find in their proposal. If you can put their case better than they can, and then refute it, you maximize the chance of initiating a constructive dialogue on the merits and minimize the chance of their believing you have misunderstood them.

People listen better if they feel that you have understood them. They tend to think that those who understand them are intelligent and sympathetic people whose own opinions may be worth listening to. So if you want the other side to appreciate your interests, begin by demonstrating that you appreciate theirs



It is easy to forget sometimes that a negotiation is not a debate. Nor is it a trial. You are not trying to persuade some third party. The person you are trying to persuade is seated at the table with you. If a negotiation is to be compared with a legal proceeding, the situation resembles that of two judges trying to reach agreement on how to decide a case. Try putting yourself in that role, treating your opposite number as a fellow judge with whom are you attempting to work out a joint opinion.



In many negotiations, each side explains and condemns at great length the motivations and intentions of the other side. It is more persuasive, however, to describe a problem in terms of its impact on you than in terms of what they did or why: “I feel let down” instead of “You broke your word.” “We feel discriminated against” rather than “You’re a racist.”

But a statement about how you feel is difficult to challenge. You convey the same information without provoking a defensive reaction that will prevent them from taking it in.



The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty blocked out at the Camp David summit in 1978 demonstrates the usefulness of looking behind positions. Israel had occupied the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula since the Six Day War of 1967. When Egypt and Israel sat down together in 1978 to negotiate a peace, their positions were incompatible. Israel insisted on keeping some of the Sinai. Egypt, on the other hand, insisted that every inch of the Sinai be returned to Egyptian sovereignty. Time and again, people drew maps showing possible boundary lines that would divide the Sinai between Egypt and Israel. Compromising in this way was wholly unacceptable to Egypt. To go back to the situation as it was in 1967 was equally unacceptable to Israel.

Looking to their interests instead of their positions made it possible to develop a solution. Israel’s interest lay in security; they did not want Egyptian tanks poised on their border ready to roll across at any time. Egypt’s interest lay in sovereignty; the Sinai had been part of Egypt since the time of the Pharaohs.

At Camp David, President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Begin of Israel agreed to a plan that would return the Sinai to complete Egyptian sovereignty and, by demilitarizing large areas, would still assure Israeli security. The Egyptian flag would fly everywhere, but Egyptian tanks would be nowhere near Israel.



Reconciling interests rather than positions works for two reasons:

  1. for every interest there usually exist several possible positions that could satisfy it. All too often people simply adopt the most obvious position.

  2. behind opposed positions lie many more interests than conflicting one

Yet all too often negotiators end up like the proverbial children who quarreled over an orange. After they finally agreed to divide the orange in half, the first child took one half, ate the fruit, and threw away the peel, while the other threw away the fruit and used the peel from the second half in baking a cake. All too often negotiators “leave money on the table”—they fail to reach agreement when they might have, or the agreement they do reach could have been better for each side. Too many negotiations end up with half an orange for each side instead of the whole fruit for one and the whole peel for the other.



In most negotiations, there are four major obstacles that inhibit the inventing of an abundance of options:

  1. Premature judgment

  2. Searching for the single answer

  3. the assumption of a fixed pie

  4. thinking that “solving their problem is their problem.”

In most people’s minds, inventing simply is not part of the negotiating process. People see their job as narrowing the gap between positions, not broadening the options available. To invent creative options, you will need to:

  1. separate the act of inventing options from the act of judging them

  2. broaden the options on the table rather than look for a single answer

  3. search for mutual gains

  4. invent ways of making their decisions easy.

If dovetailing had to be summed up in one sentence, it would be: Look for items that are of low cost to you and high benefit to them, and vice versa.

If you and the other side cannot reach first-order agreement, you can usually reach second-order agreement— that is, agree on where you disagree, so that you both know the issues in dispute, which are not always obvious. In almost every case, your satisfaction depends to a degree on making the other side sufficiently content with an agreement to want to live up to it.



Agreement is often based on disagreement

It is as absurd to think, for example, that you should always begin by reaching agreement on the facts as it is for a buyer of stock to try to convince the seller that the stock is likely to go up. If they did agree that the stock would go up, the seller would probably not sell. What makes a deal likely is that the buyer believes the price will go up and the seller believes it will go down. The difference in belief provides the basis for a deal.



Are you trying to influence a single negotiator, an absent boss, or some committee or other collective decision-making body? You cannot negotiate successfully with an abstraction like “Houston” or “the University of California.” Instead of trying to persuade “the insurance company” to make a decision, it is wiser to focus your efforts on getting one claims agent to make a recommendation. However complex the other side’s decisional process may seem, you will understand it better if you pick one person—probably the person with whom you are dealing—and see how the problem looks from his or her point of view.

Few things facilitate a decision as much as precedent. Search for it. Look for a decision or statement that the other side may have made in a similar situation, and try to base a proposed agreement on it. This provides an objective standard for your request and makes it easier for them to go along. Recognizing their probable desire to be consistent, thinking about what they have already done or said will help you generate options acceptable to you that also take their point of view into account.

To produce an outcome independent of will, you can use either fair standards for the substantive question or fair procedures for resolving the conflicting interests. Consider, for example, the age-old way to divide a piece of cake between two children: one cuts and the other chooses. Neither can complain about an unfair division.



In response to power, the most any method of negotiation can do is to meet two objectives:

  1. to protect you against making an agreement you should reject and second

  2. to help you make the most of the assets you do have so that any agreement you reach will satisfy your interests as well as possible

Negotiators commonly try to protect themselves against such an outcome by establishing in advance the worst acceptable outcome—their “bottom line.” But the protection afforded by adopting a bottom line involves high costs:

  1. It limits your ability to benefit from what you learn during negotiation

  2. It inhibits imagination. It reduces the incentive to invent a tailor-made solution that would reconcile differing interests in a way more advantageous for both you and them



One frequent mistake is to see your alternatives in the aggregate

You may be telling yourself that if you do not reach agreement on a salary for this job, you could always go to California, or go south, or go back to school, or write, or work on a farm, or live in Paris, or do something else. In your mind you are likely to find the sum of these alternatives more attractive than working for a specific salary in a particular job. The difficulty is that you cannot have the sum total of all those other alternatives; if you fail to reach agreement, you will have to choose just one.



The better your BATNA, the greater your power. People think of negotiating power as being determined by resources like wealth, political connections, physical strength, friends, and military might. In fact, the relative negotiating power of two parties depends primarily upon how attractive to each is the option of not reaching agreement

The desirability of disclosing your BATNA to the other side depends upon your assessment of the other side’s thinking. If your BATNA is extremely attractive—if you have another customer waiting in the next room—it is in your interest to let the other side know. If they think you lack a good alternative when in fact you have one, then you should almost certainly let them know. However, if your best alternative to a negotiated agreement is worse for you than they think, disclosing it will weaken rather than strengthen your hand.

You should not expect success in negotiation unless you are able to make the other side an offer they find more attractive than their BATNA—their Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. If that seems impossible, then negotiation doesn’t make sense. Concentrate instead on improving your BATNA and perhaps changing theirs



You can use a commitment to enhance your negotiating power in three ways:

  1. You can commit to what you will do, for example, by making a firm offer

  2. You can, with care, make a negative commitment as to what you will not do

  3. You can clarify precisely what commitments you would like the other side to make.

You may also want to clarify what you will do if the other side does not accept your proposal. They may not realize the consequences of your BATNA for them. (“If we can’t get heat in our apartment this evening, I will have to call the health department’s emergency line. Are you aware that they charge landlords a $250 fine when they respond and find a violation of the statute?”)



Tricky tactics can be divided into three categories:

  1. Deliberate deception

  2. Psychological warfare

  3. Positional pressure tactics

Do not assume that the other side has full authority just because they are there negotiating with you. An insurance adjuster, a lawyer, or a salesperson may allow you to think that your flexibility is being matched by flexibility on their side. You may later find that what you thought was an agreement will be treated by the other side as simply a floor for further negotiation.

Frequently one side will try to postpone coming to a decision until a time they think favorable. Labor negotiators will often delay until the last few hours before a strike deadline, relying on the psychological pressure of the deadline to make management more malleable. Unfortunately, they often miscalculate and the strike deadline passes. Once the strike begins, management, in turn, may decide to wait for a more favorable time, such as when the union’s strike fund has run out. Waiting for the right time is a high-cost game about your marriage, you have already lost the more important negotiation—the one about what kind of game to play, about the way you deal with each other and your shared and differing interests.


Lock-in tactics: This tactic is illustrated by Thomas Schelling’s well-known example of two dynamite trucks barreling toward each other on a single-lane road. The question becomes which truck goes off the road to avoid an accident. As the trucks near each other, one driver in full view of the other pulls off his steering wheel and throws it out the window. Seeing this, the other driver has a choice between an explosive crash or driving his truck off the road into a ditch. This is an example of an extreme commitment tactic designed to make it impossible to yield. Paradoxically, you strengthen your bargaining position by weakening your control over the situation


Making an unjustified concession now is unlikely to make it easier to deal with future differences. You may think that next time it is their turn to make a concession; they are likely to believe that if they are stubborn enough, you will again give in. (Neville Chamberlain’s agreement to German occupation of the Sudetenland and the lack of military response to Hitler’s subsequent occupation of all of Czechoslovakia probably encouraged the Nazis to believe that an invasion of Poland would also not lead to war.)


Use questions instead of statements. Statements generate resistance, whereas questions generate answers. Questions allow the other side to get their points across and let you understand them. When you ask questions, pause. Don’t take them off the hook by going right on with another question or some comment of your own. Some of the most effective negotiating you will ever do is when you are not talking.