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Harvard Negotiation Project: 5 Lasting Rules For Negotiating Anything

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I recently had dinner with a friend of mine, a physician-turned-businessperson-turned-founder. We were discussing the virtues of transferable skills, and I asked him what management tools he brings to entrepreneurship from his earlier career in medicine. He pondered a bit before confessing that radiology skills don’t, in fact, translate so easily. Instead he referred me to what he called “one of the most valuable books” he’s ever read.

Turns out he was referring to one of the original publications to come out of the famed Harvard Negotiation Project, a seminal workshop that was started in 1979 with a mission to improve dispute and conflict resolution. Harvard’s researchers focused on negotiation for all kinds of conflicts, from the interpersonal to the international geopolitical. But since conflict negotiation is something businesspeople do daily, it’s not surprising that the fruits of their work were also published as a business book just two years later in the now classic best-seller, “Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,” by Roger Fisher, Bill Ury and Bruce Patton.

I picked it up. As my friend suggested, it’s as relevant as it always was, a common sense approach to effective negotiation rooted in five basic ideas. And if you can manage to absorb and apply these five rules, you’ll be much better off going into your next deal.

1. Don’t Bargain Over Positions
Most of us begin negotiation by identifying a position and arguing for it, such as: “I want to retain the CEO title.” But such positional bargaining can limit your ability to arrive at a “wise agreement” that benefits both parties — the proverbial middle ground and the whole purpose of negotiation. Instead of thinking of a “position,” identify the goal. You want remuneration for the sweat you put into your company. You want, for example, status (to remain CEO). But a specific position is binary — you either get it or you don’t. A goal can be attained in many ways, giving you many more options for arriving at a solution.

2. Separate the People From the Problem
Most negotiation is emotional. You want something, after all. And emotion clouds our objectivity. But you can limit the emotional content of your negotiation by thinking of the person you’re talking to as your partner and the problem you’re trying to solve as an object. Take, for example, the question of how much a company’s equity is worth. In this case, you’re not negotiating against the investor over a position, you’re engaged with that person to arrive at the right answer to the question. Some will urge you to make your negotiation opponent a partner, but this can lead to Stockholm Syndrome. Instead just think of engaging the other person, using their input to arrive at the right answer. Maintain your independence.

3. Focus on Interests

We all have interests. The pursuit to fulfill our interests leads up to adopt positions. But bargaining for stated positions, such as titles, will not necessarily produce a wise agreement that takes care of the interests that led you to adopt the positions in the first place. Think instead: I want to remain engaged in the business. There are many ways to achieve goals without having specific positions.

4. Invent Options for Mutual Gain
This is the creative part. You must examine each other’s interests to come up with options in which both parties gain. Your investors have an interest in a pro-CEO who can sell into large corporations (you’ve never done that). You need funding, but also want to remain engaged. Both parties can draft a list of options for your new role that satisfy everyone’s needs: COO, president, chief innovation officer, etc. Negotiate from this list.

5. Insist on Using Objective Criteria

We all have personal standards. CEO conveys more status than chairman, etc. The key is to let go of personal standards in favor of objective ones upon which both parties can agree. (Think of the Kelley Blue Book, a set of agreed-upon standards for those looking to buy or sell a car). But here you have to do some real homework and investigate the objective standards that apply to your negotiation ahead of time. Some to consider: market value; legal or business precedent; scientific judgments (patents); efficiency; and reciprocity.

30 Responses to “Harvard Negotiation Project: 5 Lasting Rules For Negotiating Anything”

  1. The magic of these cardinal principals to effective negotiation is that they’re applicable to a number of circumstances. The book “Getting to Yes” is excellent and provides a good introduction (and methodology) to negotiating effectively.

    I would also recommend “The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator” (Thompson) and “The Art and Science of Negotiation” (Raiffa).

  2. Anonymous

    I like the book, it is the main text for a class that I’m taking). We are using the workbook too. But I feel that there is the need for something more to get an understanding of this method. Any suggestions for further reading or would you say it’s more practice makes perfect?

  3. Anonymous

    Anyone who needs help in professional/personal life for negotiating, this book is a must. I was looking up more info on the subject for my class and a recommendation for our textbook came up. Hope someone else could find it helpful!

  4. lois ramer

    There are on-going conflicts that I seem to have with men/women ‘of the cloth’ Do you have any books to recommend on the subject of ‘communications between pastor and the lay-person?


  5. “But such positional bargaining can limit your ability to arrive at a “wise agreement” that benefits both parties — the proverbial middle ground and the whole purpose of negotiation”

    What happens if the party you are negotiating with is not interested in finding “middle ground”? If middle ground and win-win was so obtainable then why is there ever a reason to re-negotiate a contract or an agreement?

    We get so many clients that are sick of feeling like they have been taken advantage of all because they have trained themselves to follow so called “rules” such as these.

  6. Carleen’s write-up of the classic “Getting To Yes…” does a great job of capturing the key points. Often after finishing that book, folks ask if this is all that they need to know in order to do a good job at negotiating. The answer is, sadly, no. There is a lot more. The five rules that Carleen talks about are a great starting point but since negotiating is really two or more people trying to communicate, things tend to get a bit tricky in real life.

    One of the next steps in improving your negotiating skills is to think about the (a href = “”> physical side of negotiating. All too often we think about negotiating as being a mental activity; however, mental success is all too often based on how we are feeling physically.

    A good list of 5 points, but don’t stop there!

  7. Alejandro Atienza Ramos

    Sorry EmAitch,

    I surely have quite a good selection on my shelves, but I am novice to the particular topic of negotiating literature, so I’m afraid I cannot discuss books on that field.

    Still no answer of Mark D… perhaps he is a nomad in this page and will never come back. What a pity it would be.

  8. Interesting post.

    But tell me how a post about negotiation in general (see title: “5 last rules for negotiating anything”) turned into a rules for selling your company or taking it public?

    Show some imagination with your examples!

  9. One more excellent title on negotiation is this book:

    The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator (Thompson)

    It’s a good combination of data-backed theories with case studies and exercises. Caildini is also great for overall influence (it’s the classic), but hard to apply to improving your negotiation skills substantially.

  10. EmAitch

    I would also be interested in hearing about the rest of your books Mark D
    And at the risk of sounding smart alecky or hyper snoopy, AAR you probably have some pretty good stuff on your shelves.

    As for me, My bible has been “Getting to Yes” but it doesn’t necessarily provide options for some of the situations I find my self in. So I’m always on the prowl for more ideas. I also have some other books about conflict, primarily based on the South African experience, but I have not read them in a serious way. I’m not even sure of the titles, but I will look.

  11. Alejandro Atienza Ramos

    Marc D,

    It may be a little too off-topic, but I would be interested on hearing the titles of the rest of your business shelf. If you feel it doesn’t belong here, maybe you could e-mail me at my first name @ my last names .com (all together, without hyphens, dots, or anything among them). Thanks a lot!

    (Anyway, judging the low quantity of comments, it shouldn’t be a problem to post it here)

  12. Mark D

    As long as were on the topic of negotiation books, no topic on negotiation is complete without mentioning Cialdini’s Influence book. By far the absolute best read on how decisions are made and more importantly, how others can stack the deck in their favor to get the decision they want. Plus its not some gut feel, seat of the pants type book – every story, every assertion, 100% backed up with research.

    Its on my shelf as one of the top 5 business books.