Separate people from the problem

The Harvard Negotiation Project is a practice-oriented academic initiative at Harvard University that looks to provide negotiation resources for practitioners. The star of this project is Fisher and Ury’s book Getting to Yes. Negotiating an agreement without giving in. This book offers a negotiation method with concrete rules from an alternative approach, focusing on critical aspects of any negotiation.      

The first rule of this method is to separate people from the problem. In many negotiations, human relationships, emotions, and cultural differences are relevant to understanding how events unfold. Sometimes, these elements are more decisive for the outcome than the actual subject matter of the negotiation. Sometimes, even people are the problem that prevents the negotiation process from proceeding or makes it very difficult.   

The role of emotions in negotiations is a variable to be considered and can be of crucial relevance. Fisher and Ury highlight that negotiators are, first and foremost, people, which will inevitably have implications on the process, for example, when handling their emotions or the cultural or social differences that may arise.  

Sometimes, the best way to manage a negotiation involving emotional issues is to put them politely out in the open. From there, an honest relationship can be built that deals with the actual subject of the negotiation. On other occasions, some people make concessions just to maintain their good personal relationship with the other party. In such cases, the object of negotiating the relationship between the parties must be clearly defined to affirm the legitimacy of this separation without affecting the personal relationship. Otherwise, one party may think that the other is taking advantage.

Another piece of advice from Fisher and Ury is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. This is a crucial element of negotiations because we learn from imagining ourselves in the circumstances in which the other party is placed, which allows us to predict their future actions. This exercise is particularly suitable for situations with differences between the parties. These differences will play a role – implicitly or explicitly – in the negotiations.  

One of the implications of this exercise of putting oneself in the other’s shoes is to analyse how the other party saves face. That is, whether the offer or the terms of the negotiation allow the other party a good solution compatible with their values or reasonable expectations. The parties must explain and justify the result obtained from the negotiation. An intelligent negotiator must, therefore, be concerned about how the other party saves face, and this implies having internalised their point of view.      

Another perspective offered by Fisher and Ury is to consider the concerns of the other party. The parties have different interests, concerns and priorities; perhaps there is room for negotiation. Moreover, exploring these differences may be yield benefit. It is necessary to address the other party’s concerns, even if they are not directly related to the main object of negotiation.  

Separating people from the problem is a key principle in negotiations. It involves recognising that we are human beings and that there are aspects of the relationships between the parties that can influence the outcome. People should not be the problem but part of the solution.