Ury is one of the leading world experts on negotiation and conflict. He is the co-author of the best selling Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In and a faculty member at Harvard Business School. Here are my notes on Jim Mellado’s interview with him.
Jim: How did you get started in this?
William: I grew up during the cold war under the shadow of the bomb, and I could never understand why we were willing to put all of humanity at risk. The question I’ve devoted my life to is how do we live with our deepest differences?
Jim: Why is this relevant to everyone?
William: I see negotiation very broadly. Think of your own lives and who you negotiate with in the course of your day. Your kids, your spouse, your employees, your co-workers, your board. You spend a lot of time each day in the act of back and forth communication, trying to reach agreement on various issues. We are negotiating from the time we get up to the time we go to bed at night. Many of our decisions are made through a process of shared decision making. This is why negotiation is so central. It is a core competence for leadership.
William: Conflict isn’t necessarily bad because no injustice or anything gets resolved without conflict. We need to hear lots of different views that are very different. The question is can we deal with conflict in a constructive way, or are we going to handle it through destruction?
Jim: What is the biggest obstacle to negotiation?
William: It is not what we think it is. It’s not that difficult person out there. It’s us. We are the biggest barrier to us achieving success. It is an all too human characteristic to simply react — to act without thinking. The key foundation of successful negotiation is to get up on the balcony — a place where you can get a larger perspective. A place of clarity where you can see the ultimate goal. That’s key.
One of the greatest powers we have in negotiation is the power not to react.
Jim: What are the most significant skills we need to get good at to negotiate well?
William: You need to focus on underlying needs. You need to be creative. And you need to rely on objective criteria.
So the first is to separate the person from the problem. We often end up being soft on the people and soft on the problem. Or we make the opposite mistake, being hard on the problem and hard on the people. But you find successful negotiators drawing a line between people and the problem. They remain soft on the people while dealing hard on the problem. The harder the problem, the softer you need to be on the people. Soft on the people means listening, putting yourselves in the shoes of the other side, understanding how they feel (how could you change someone’s mind unless you know what it is?), and respect. It costs you nothing to give someone basic respect, and it means everything to them.
Jim: When I first read your book, I thought that was especially significant because one of the fruit of the Spirit is kindness.
William: Yes, this changes the game from face-to-face confrontation. You ought to see yourselves on the same side of the table, side by side, tackling the same problem together.
Jim: Unpack the second principle, focusing on interest, not position.
William: There is often a difference between interest and position. The key is to probe behind the specific position a person has to the underlying aims they have. Sometimes the aim can be accomplished in a different way. So the key is to always ask the question “why?”
Jim: Talk about the importance of developing multiple options.
William: What we bring to negotiation is our ability to be inventive. Once we see the interests, rather than just position, we can see that there are many ways of doing that. Creative options that meet the interests of all sides.
Jim: How about the power of objective criteria and fair process.
William: Often people think in terms of a fixed pie. But in the inventing process, you’ve asked “how do we expand the pie?” But now that’s say you’ve done that, and it is time to divide up the pie. How do you deal with that? In a merely positional process, this tends to be a question of will and ego. The alternative is to use standards that are independent of will and ego, objective criteria. You don’t have to “give in to the other side,” but defer to an independent standard of fairness that is objective.
Jim: What do you do if you aren’t able to reach an agreement?
William: We should go in to negotiations with what we call a BATNA — a “best alternative to a negotiated agreement.” This isn’t negative thinking, but positive alternative thinking. If you have an alternative, you are going to have more confidence. And this also gives you a way to measure the value of your agreement. Many times, people reach an agreement that is worse than their alternative.