For Better Communication, Try Appreciation

What the negotiation book Getting to Yes taught us about coming together.

By Katie Shonkon / Negotiation Skills

Many professional negotiators have come away from talks wondering, How did that pleasant discussion turn sour? Why did the deal unravel at the last minute?

Poor communication explains many of our negotiation mistakes, write Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton in their landmark book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Penguin, 3rd edition, 2011).

Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from Harvard Law School.

In Getting to Yes, Fisher, Ury, and Patton explain that rather than waging a strictly competitive battle, parties on both sides of a negotiation or dispute can achieve more by listening closely to each other, treating each other fairly, and jointly exploring options to increase value.

A focus on interests

Getting to Yes was the first negotiation book to popularize the idea of interest-based negotiation, or integrative negotiation, which involves exploring the deeper interests underlying parties’ stated positions to identify potential tradeoffs and win-win opportunities across issues and interests. Negotiators dissatisfied with adversarial bargaining were energized by the more collaborative orientation of Getting to Yes.

Fisher, Ury, and Patton applied academic theory from a wide range of disciplines to address real-world personal, professional, and public policy problems. Drawing from decision theory, for example, they crafted the now familiar concept of BATNA, or best alternative to a negotiated agreement. Negotiation ultimately involves a choice between the deal you’ve been offered and what you would get by walking away from the table. Thus, the negotiation process should involve a search for solutions that leave both parties better off than they would be if they reached an impasse and turned to their outside options.

4 keys to better communication

Here are four keys to effective communication outlined in Getting to Yes:

1. Treat the problem, not the people.

Begin by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. What does the problem look like from that vantage point? If you have an employee who isn’t performing up to your standards, before you tell her what she’s doing wrong, ask her how she thinks things are going. You may learn that she isn’t getting the support and training she was promised. When you must deliver bad news, criticize specific behaviors, not intent or the person’s character.

2. Learn to manage emotions.

Until emotions are expressed, you and your negotiating counterpart may have trouble truly hearing each other. Allowing the other party to have his say will reap benefits for you both. “Freed from the burden of unexpressed emotions,” write the authors of Getting to Yes, “people will become more likely to work on the problem.” They tell the story of a labor-management group that “adopted the rule that only one person could get angry at a time,” thereby preventing arguments from escalating. If you know that you will have your turn to vent, you’ll find it easier to listen when your counterpart has his turn.

3. Try a positive spin.

Communicating in a positive way can help you achieve your goals. When it’s time to share your views, speak only for yourself. If you say, “Everyone is complaining that you’re not doing your share” to an employee, she is likely to be distracted from your message as she wonders who is complaining. Instead, talk about what you’ve observed and express your concern for her well-being.

4. Escape the cycle of action and reaction.

To head off this vicious cycle, Fisher, Ury, and Patton promote a method they call negotiation jujitsu, which involves avoiding escalation by refusing to react. Instead, channel resistance into activities such as “exploring interests, inventing options for mutual gain, and searching for independent standards.”

The value of appreciation

Throughout his illustrious career, Getting to Yes coauthor and Harvard Law School professor Roger Fisher, who passed away in 2012 at age 90, stressed the importance of expressing appreciation as a means of breaking through impasse. “No one likes to feel unappreciated, and this is particularly true in a negotiation,” Fisher told Program on Negotiation managing director Susan Hackley in 2005.

In his book with Daniel Shapiro, Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate (Penguin, 2006), Fisher, who cofounded the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, advised negotiators to express appreciation by working to understand the other’s perspective, seeking merit in that perspective, and communicating understanding through words and actions.

“In our conversations about negotiation,” Shapiro told the Negotiation Briefings newsletter in 2012, “Roger again and again emphasized the importance of appreciation. He believed that everyone wants to feel heard, deeply understood, and valued for their perspectives, and he lived by those principles. Even when he and I held opposing points of view about how to teach a class or express a concept, his goal was always to appreciate.”

Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from Harvard Law School.