To Achieve a Win-Win Situation, First Negotiate with Yourself

In business negotiations, our actions and reactions often go against creating a win-win situation. Self-examination can help, writes Getting to Yes author William Ury in his book, Getting to Yes with Yourself (and Other Worthy Opponents).

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a win. win situation

Think about some of the disappointments and stressful moments you’ve faced in your negotiations. Maybe you have walked out of discussions with your romantic partner because you felt too upset to continue talking towards a win-win situation — a choice that only ratcheted up the tense atmosphere. Perhaps you’ve failed to speak up for your needs in the face of your boss’s demands, only to feel your job dissatisfaction growing. In dealings with outside parties, anger or impatience may have led you to make concessions you later regretted.

We all have negotiation memories that make us wince. In his book Getting to Yes with Yourself (and Other Worthy Opponents) (HarperOne, 2015), Harvard Negotiation Project cofounder William Ury writes that our biggest obstacle in any given negotiation usually isn’t a difficult partner, bad timing, or a lack of power. Rather, it is ourselves. “We sabotage ourselves by reacting in ways that do not serve our true interests,” Ury writes. Virtually all of us have destructive patterns that we fall back on in negotiation, such as losing our temper, withdrawing instead of communicating, or saying yes when we need to set limits.

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In 1981, Ury and Roger Fisher published the first edition of the seminal book on mutual-gains negotiation, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Penguin, 1991). The book has taught millions the benefits of replacing a win-lose mentality with a win-win situation, including more-creative agreements and stronger relationships. Yet having seen many negotiators continue to “get in their own way,” Ury saw the need for a “prequel”: a book that would help negotiators better understand themselves.

In Getting to Yes with Yourself, Ury presents six steps we can follow to recognize and overcome the blind spots that may be holding us back in negotiation; we outline the first three here.

For a win-win situation in negotiation, self-awareness is critical

1. Put yourself in your shoes.

Experienced negotiators understand the importance of taking the other party’s perspective. By imagining how we would act and react in someone else’s position, we get a step closer to empathizing with and influencing the other party.

Unfortunately, writes Ury, our focus on our own problems and concerns often prevents us from putting ourselves in our counterpart’s shoes. He advises negotiators to “put yourself in your own shoes first”—that is, to listen to yourself first, identify your deepest needs, and think about how they can be met.

Ury describes Abílio Diniz, a prominent Brazilian businessman who was locked in a dispute with his French business partner over control of Brazil’s leading supermarket chain, a company that Diniz had founded years ago with his father. Diniz had sold controlling shares of the company to his partner but stayed on as chair and a major shareholder. The partnership had soured, leading to two arbitration cases and a lawsuit.

Diniz was furious with his partner, but he “did not know what he really wanted most, to fight or to settle,” Ury concluded. When pressed by Ury to look beyond his concrete demands, such as a particular price for his company stock, Diniz revealed that he wanted his “freedom” more than anything—freedom to spend time with his family, “the most important thing in my life,” and to pursue his other business goals. The realization of this deep need allowed the long-standing dispute to be wrapped up within days. Ury helped to convince Diniz’s partner to release him from a noncompete clause so that he could make other business deals in return for exiting the board and selling his shares in the company.

How can we follow Diniz’s lead and put ourselves in our own shoes? In his book Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations (Bantam, 1993), Ury describes the value of “going to the balcony”—disengaging during heated moments in our negotiations and viewing them with detachment. By observing the negotiation from the metaphorical balcony, we can gain the distance we need to see the other side’s behavior more clearly and overcome the urge to react destructively.

It’s just as important to view ourselves from the balcony, writes Ury in Getting to Yes with Yourself. When you feel your anger, fear, or other upsetting emotions rising during a negotiation, try to step back and observe the feelings with a spirit of curiosity and inquiry. You might practice this type of self-observation before negotiating by sitting quietly and attending to your fleeting thoughts and feelings. This mindfulness exercise can bring a state of clarity and calm to your reflections on yourself and your interactions with others. In the process, you can learn to view yourself with less judgment and get closer to identifying your deeper needs, as Diniz did.

2. Develop your “inner BATNA.”

When negotiators find themselves in conflict, they typically blame one another, according to Ury. Refusing to recognize our own contributions to the problem, we feel the sense of righteous indignation that comes from holding others accountable. Yet viewing ourselves as victims requires us to sacrifice our own sense of power and typically diminishes our outcomes.

We can avoid this destructive spiral by cultivating what Ury refers to as our inner BATNA. In Getting to Yes, Fisher and Ury pioneered the BATNA concept—the notion that one’s greatest source of power in negotiation is one’s best alternative to a negotiated agreement. By enhancing our alternatives outside the current negotiation, we gain the sense of freedom, power, and confidence we need to walk away from an agreement that doesn’t serve our interests.

Even when our BATNA seems weak, we can foster a sense of power in ourselves—and avoid the “blame game”—by creating an inner BATNA: “a strong, unconditional commitment to ourselves to take care of our deepest needs, no matter what other people do or don’t do,” writes Ury in Getting to Yes with Yourself.

Returning to Abílio Diniz, once he determined that freedom was his central goal, he could ask himself: “Who can give me that freedom? Is it just my opponent? Or can I take responsibility for meeting my own needs?” Diniz committed to meeting his need for freedom independently of the other side. He became chair of the board of another major company, established a new office outside company headquarters, went on a prolonged vacation with his family, and began pursuing other business deals. Because he first freed himself psychologically, resolving the conflict became easier.

“By giving up the blame game and assuming responsibility for your relationships and your needs,” writes Ury, “you can go right to the root of conflict and take the lead in transforming your negotiations and your life.”

3. Reframe your picture.

Negotiators are often advised to look for a win-win situation and ways to “expand the pie” of resources before trying to carve it up. Through creative thinking, for example, two department heads may find ways to jointly increase sales, enabling each to claim a larger share of the budget.

But because of a “mind-set of scarcity,” we tend to believe that the pie of resources is fixed in size. “When people feel there isn’t enough to go around, conflicts tend to break out,” writes Ury. To move beyond a scarcity mind-set, we need to reframe the situation. For example, we can strive to view our negotiations as opportunities for collaboration rather than adversarial contests.

Such shifts often require us to look not only at the specific situation but also at how we approach life in general. Do we expect things to generally go our way, or do we anticipate roadblocks at every turn?

For those who often feel pessimistic and distrustful, it can be difficult to adopt a more open, optimistic mind-set and reach a win-win situation. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard neuroanatomist, inadvertently did just that after suffering a debilitating stroke at age 37. Taylor’s memory and many basic life skills, including the ability to walk and talk, were wiped away by the stroke—but so were the stress and anxieties of life.


A Q&A with William Ury

Negotiation Briefings: You write that each person will have their own favorite way of “going to the balcony.” What is one of your favorites? What are some you would recommend to others?

William Ury: One of my favorite ways to go to the balcony is to take a walk whenever possible. On a walk, I find I can think more clearly about what is truly important—my core interests and values. I find it helpful not to make important decisions at the table. Make the decision beforehand when you are preparing or, if that’s not practical, ask for a break, even if it is just for a few minutes. Try checking in with a trusted colleague, who can sometimes serve as your “balcony” to help you keep your eyes on the prize.

NB: You and the legendary Roger Fisher collaborated on the seminal negotiation text, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In. Did you learn anything from Professor Fisher about the value of “getting to yes with yourself” before he passed away in 2012?

WU: It was a real privilege to learn from Roger. He always stressed looking for the present opportunity for constructive action: “Who can do what today to move the conflict toward resolution?” was the question he always liked to ask. Roger knew that, as interesting and informative as the past might be, the power to transform a conflict lay in the present moment. We cannot change the past, but we can change the future. But how can we let go of lingering resentment of the past and constant worry about the future? Those are questions I take up in this new book.

NB: In Getting to Yes with Yourself, you describe the health challenges of your 16-year-old daughter, Gabi, who has had 14 major surgeries to address congenital physical anomalies. Near the end of the book, you tell the moving story of how Gabi broke a Guinness World Record while also raising money for the children’s hospital that had helped her over the years. What do you think is the greatest lesson that negotiators can learn from Gabi?

WU: Sometimes the biggest lessons we learn come from those closest to us. I have learned a lot over the years from watching my daughter handle adversity. She has every reason to see life as unfriendly and to blame life and others for her problems, but she chose a different path. She doesn’t see herself as a victim, but rather demonstrates the human capacity to reframe the picture—to see life as an ally and thus to see others as potential partners rather than as enemies. That is a big lesson for negotiators: Never underestimate your capacity to reframe situations that seem adversarial as opportunities for possible cooperation.

Interestingly, the stroke damaged the left side of Taylor’s brain, the side responsible for logical reasoning and critical thinking. Cut off from the chatter of her left brain, and thinking primarily with her right brain—the side that focuses on connection, expression, and creativity—Taylor felt a euphoric sense of calm and peacefulness, she explained during a TED talk. Her desire to teach others about the happiness and peace she had found when disconnected from her left brain motivated her through her eight years of recovery from the stroke. She now encourages people to find greater fulfillment by engaging the right side of the brain through creative and physical activities, such as playing an instrument, making art, or running.

If you’ve ever taken a walk to clear your head in the midst of a tense negotiation, then you have already experienced how engaging the right brain can bring new energy and creativity to the table. When we make time to restore our spirits, we create and strengthen important neural pathways and improve our ability to reframe and connect.

6 steps to getting to yes with yourself:

1. Put yourself in your shoes.

Seek better self-understanding by listening empathetically to your underlying needs.

2. Develop your inner BATNA.

Sidestep the “blame game” by committing yourself to taking care of your own needs.

3. Reframe your picture.

To avoid bringing a scarcity mind-set to negotiation, foster independent sources of contentment.

4. Stay in the zone.

Learn techniques to help you stay in the moment and keep anxiety from getting the best of you.

5. Respect them “even if.”

Break the cycle of attacking and rejecting by surprising your counterpart with respect and inclusion.

6. Give and receive.

To improve your satisfaction and the possibility of a win-win situation, practice giving first instead of taking.

What steps do you take in negotiations to set up a win-win situation with your counterpart?

Claim your FREE copy: Negotiation Skills

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 the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

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