Home Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In

cover Written by Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In is a fantastic guide to the art of principled negotiation. That’s right - the goal is to engage in principled negotiation. Do not let the title mislead you into thinking it’s a box of tricks for you to unilaterally “get your way”.

Roger and William are both professors at Harvard and founders of the Harvard Negotiation Project.

The book is a short and accessible read, suitable for everyone, including software engineers such as myself. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to level up beyond their soft skills as a professional.

Check out some other books I’ve read on the bookshelf.


Getting to Yes exhorts parties in a negotiation to pivot away from the typical positional bargaining tactics, and into negotiation based on principles, standards and interests independent of the will of any single party.

The game of positional bargaining involves locking the “terrain” upfront by staking initial (and often extreme) positions, yielding as little as possible in a pre-established vector of negotiation while making the other side yield as much as possible along the same line.

In contrast, principled negotiation leaves the field open for collaborative exploration of the underlying interests and the universe of options that can address those interests, based on objective criteria, all while separating the people from the problem. The goal is to produce wiser agreements more efficiently and in a way that preserves relationships.

The book is laden with great examples ranging from a fictional tenant negotiating the rent with their landlord to real life examples where countries avoid war due to clever negotiation tactics. Here’s one of my favorites that showcases the advantages of focusing on interests and not positions:

[…] two men are quarreling in a library. One wants the window open and the other wants it closed. They bicker back and forth about how much to leave it open: a crack, halfway, three-quarters of the way. No solution satisfies them both.

Enter the librarian. She asks one why he wants the window open: “To get some fresh air.” She asks the other why he wants it closed: “To avoid the draft.” After thinking a minute, she opens wide a window in the next room, bringing in fresh air without a draft.

The book includes sobering chapters on what to do if the other side won’t play the game of principled negotiation and/or is more powerful. These sections really serve to round off the excellent treatise on principled negotiation by acknowledging circumstances where the method may not work and presents the reader with options in those cases.

Lastly, the book acknowledges that readers are probably already aware of most of what it teaches at some level of their experience. The goal in writing the book was to organize these common ideas and experiences into a usable framework.


I am a software engineer with experience ranging from individual contributions in big hierarchical organizations to more collaborative team work in flat “startups” doing pair-programming.

Despite the romanticized view of a software engineer with their hoody pulled over their head and earphones plugged into the sides of their heads, software engineering is a social endeavour. There is always some level of collaboration needed with other software engineers, operations, DBAs, helpdesk, product managers, your manager, etc.

Software engineers like to debate a lot. Too many pointless arguments about details that don’t really matter in the long run. I’ve been guilty of this and have just bruises and scars to show for it. The world keeps turning; the business keeps operating.

Sometimes you really do have to sit down and negotiate on something worthwhile, but these instances are few and far in between. I think that of far more value is the wisdom to distinguish between that which is worthwhile and that which isn’t1. Because one thing that Getting to YES confirms is that principled negotiation can require a lot of effort. Brainstorming, inventing options, etc. Use wisely.

Reading Getting to YES gives me comfort in recognition and validation of my system of thought, but it won’t make me a negotiator “superhero” who can win every negotiation. Sometimes the balance of BATNA (see definition below) is tilted against you, the other side is aware of it, and there is nothing you can do to make up the difference. Other times the age-old saying applies: you cannot reason someone out of something he or she was not reasoned into. You can’t reason against a working culture.

Still, Getting to YES provides me a structured framework that fits my style and a checklist of things to do and things to watch out for. I intend to keep this book on my shelf for a long, long time.

The Problems with Positional Bargaining

Unwise outcomes

Positional bargainers remain locked in their initial positions at the expense of creativity and the discovery of the underlying interests.


Parties hold extreme positions, conceding as little as necessary to keep the negotiation going. This is even worse when there are many parties at the negotiating table.

Endangers an ongoing relationship

Positional bargaining becomes a contest of will as each party digs deeper and deeper into their position and attempts to make the other side bend to their rigid will, resulting in anger and resentment. One side may decide to switch to a soft style by being generous in order to preserve the relationship on good terms. This makes reaching an agreement likely and faster, but not necessarily a wise agreement. Anger and resentment may still brew under the surface, and the soft bargainer becomes vulnerable to the hard bargainer. As the book says, “if your response to hard positional bargaining is soft positional bargaining, you will probably lose your shirt”.

Getting to YES without giving in: The Method

1. Separate the people from the problem

  • Disentangle the relationship from the substance; deal directly with the people problem
  • Perception:
    • Put yourself in their shoes. Conflict lies not in objective reality, but in people’s heads. Truth is simply one more argument. The difference itself exists because it exists in their thinking. Fears, even if ill-founded, are real fears and need to be dealt with. They may well believe that their views are “right” as strongly as you believe yours are.
    • When you talk about the problem, distinguish the symptoms from the person with whom you are talking.
      • My Experience:
        • Them: on several occasions I have engaged in a debate and after making my point on objective grounds the other side then turns around and says “Oh I see, so what YOU want is ____”. It’s not about what _I want - it’s about reaching a satisfactory agreement grounded in reason and facts.
        • Me: find it hard to separate the person from the problem when said person has a history of being a charlatan (ie. they lost my respect).
    • Discuss each other’s perceptions explicitly.
    • Don’t blame them for your problem.
    • Give them a stake in the outcome by making sure they participate in the process.
      • My Experience: sometimes important. There are people that have a visceral reaction to solutions of which they were not personally a part of. They must simply be involved in everything.
    • Make your proposals consistent with their values. This allows them to save face.
  • Emotion:
    • Pay attention to core concerns:
      • autonomy: the desire to make one’s own choices
      • appreciation: the desire to be recognized and valued
      • affiliation: the desire to belong as an accepted member of some peer group
      • role: the desire to have meaningful purpose
      • status: the desire to feel fairly seen and acknowledged
    • Consider the role of identity: a surefire driver of strong negative emotion is a perceived threat to identity - one’s self-image or self-respect.
      • My Experience: as software engineers, we pride and delude ourselves into thinking we are smarter than the average bloke. For us, a mere whiff or insinuation otherwise is an instant trigger.
    • Make emotions explicit and acknowledge them as legitimate
      • My Experience: I don’t really have experience here. But I do recognize it as a legitimate point and will work to bring up awareness to it on my next heated debate.
    • Don’t react to emotional outbursts
    • Use symbolic gestures
      • My Experience: use with care. Use wisely. Very wisely. And keep a watchful eye on their reaction (do they reciprocate?).
  • Communication:
    • Listen actively and acknowledge what is being said
      • My Experience: I have been told I don’t listen to others/others don’t feel like I listen to them. I do. I swear I do. What I plan on doing moving forward is to confirm my understanding of their points before I voice my own. I will basically replay their talking points back.
    • Speak to be understood
    • Speak about yourself, not about them
      • My Experience: hard to restrain myself from pointing out unfairness. :(
    • Speak for a purpose
  • Prevention works best
    • Build a working relationship
    • Face the problem, not the people

2. Focus on interests, not positions

Interests define the problem.

Behind opposed positions lie shared compatible interests, as well as conflicting ones.

Hard to do. How much effort can I afford to invest into this? Thinking back to the librarian in the summary’s example - could I have really come up with that solution in a minute? Perhaps. But time is precious in real life and problem-solving like this I usually time-box.

  • How do you identify interests?
    • Ask “Why?”
    • Ask “Why not?”
  • Talk about interests:
    • make your interests come alive
    • acknowledge their interests as part of the problem
    • put the problem before your answer
    • look forward, not back (aka “be constructive”?)
    • be concrete but flexible

A remarkable insight, obvious in hindsight:

Agreement is often made possible precisely because interests differ. You and a shoe-seller may both like money and shoes. Relatively, his interest in the fifty dollars exceeds his interest in a pair of shoes. For you, the situation is reversed: you like the shoes better than the fifty dollars. Hence the deal.

3. Invent options for mutual gain

  • Avoid premature judgement of options
    • My Experience: hard to do when I already formulated an opinion of the other side’s character. :(
  • Don’t search for the one single perfect answer
  • Don’t assume a “fixed pie”
  • Don’t think that “solving their problem is their problem”
    • My Experience: depends on whether I think the other side acts in good faith or not
  • Separate inventing from deciding:
    • lots and lots of brainstorming…
  • Broaden your options:
    • Multiply options by cycling between the specific and the general: The Circle Chart (p. 68)
    • Look through the eyes of different experts
    • Invent agreements of different strengths
    • Change the scope of a proposed agreement
  • Look for mutual gain
    • Identify shared interests
    • Dovetail differing interests
      • Any difference in interests?
      • Different beliefs?
      • Different values placed on time?
        • My Experience: I consider myself more a doer than a talker. I tend to place greater weight on time management than perfection.
      • Different forecasts?
      • Differences in aversions to risk?
    • Ask for their preferences

4. Insist on using Objective Criteria

  • deciding on the basis of will is costly
  • principled negotiation produces wise agreements amicably and efficiently
  • Developing objective criteria
    • fair standards
    • fair procedures
  • negotiating with objective criteria
    • frame each issue as a joint search for objective criteria
      • ask “what is your theory?”
      • agree on first principles
    • reason and be open to reason
    • never yield to pressure

That all sounds good, but what if…

… they are more powerful?

Here is a sobering quote:

No method can guarantee success if all the leverage lies on the other side. No book on gardening can teach you to grow lilies in a desert or a cactus in a swamp. If you enter an antique store to buy a sterling silver George IV tea set worth thousands of dollars and all you have is a one hundred-dollar bill, you should not expect skillful negotiation to overcome the difference. In any negotiation there exist realities that are hard to change. In response to power, the most any method of negotiation can do is to meet two objectives: first, to protect you against making an agreement you should reject and second, to help you make the most of the assets you do have so that any agreement you reach will satisfy your interests as well as possible.

Chapter 6, What If They Are More Powerful?

You should not expect miracles from reading this book. You should not expect to out-negotiate your boss when he has all the power. The best you can do is develop your BATNA and use as a baseline to gauge options and protect your interests as best you can.

Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement

Avoid setting a bottom line2. You don’t want to develop a blindspot and shut down creative solutions, nor do you want to run the risk of setting your bottom line too high. Rather, develop your BATNA. Instead of asking yourself what your bottom line is, ask yourself what will you do if an agreement is not reached at all. Doing so opens up more options for you if you think about it. You are no longer locked into having to make an agreement with the other side - you can simply walk away if your BATNA is sufficiently attractive. This is tremendously liberating. Another benefit of knowing your BATNA is that it focuses your mind away from fixed criteria (price, time, etc.) and opens is up to more creative options. The solution space is enlarged by magnitudes. Not knowing your BATNA means you are negotiating blind.

[…] the greater danger is that you are too committed to reach an agreement.

The better your BATNA, the greater your power […] the relative negotiating power of two parties depends primarily upon how attractive to each is the option of not reaching agreement.

Chapter 6, What If They Are More Powerful?

Knowing your own BATNA is great, but you should consider knowing the other side’s BATNA. Their BATNA may be better for them than any fair solution you can imagine. You may have to work hard to change their BATNA.

Formulate a tripwire: this is not a bottom line; this is an intermediary point better than your BATNA but far from your ideal agreement. When this wire is tripped, you should sit back and assess the situation.

When the other side is more powerful then your best assets are the merits of your argument. The larger a role you can establish for principle the better off you are.

… they won’t play?

Use negotiation jujitsu:

  • Recast an attack on you as an attack on the problem.
  • Don’t attack their positions, look behind it.
  • Don’t defend your ideas, invite criticism and advice.
    • “What concerns of yours would this proposal fail to take into account?”.
    • Ask them for advice. Ask them what they would do if they were in your position.

Tactics to use:

  • Use questions instead of statements. Statements generate resistance, whereas questions generate answers.
  • Silence is one of your best weapons. Ask questions and pause. It often creates the impression of a stalemate that the other side will feel impelled to break by answering your question or coming up with a new suggestion.
  • Use the one-text procedure:
    • Defer to an “architect” (expert, third party, your boss; whatever fits)
    • The architect seeks clarifications of each side’s interests as opposed to concessions
    • The architect seeks continuous feedback
    • Finally, there comes a point when the architect feels they can improve it no further and thus boil the decision down to a simple Yes or No.
    • My Experience: there is no architect, only a dictator

The book showcases a very interesting real-life example of a negotiation between a landlord and a tenant: The case of Jones Realty and Frank Turnbull.

… they use dirty tricks?

Recognize the tactic, raise the issue explicitly, and question the tactic’s legitimacy and desirability:

  • After recognizing the tactic, consider bringing it up with the other side
  • Execute The Method:
    • Separate the people from the problem
    • Focus on interests, not positions
    • Invent options for mutual gain
    • Insist on using objective criteria

Often just recognizing a tactic will neutralize it.

Common tricky tactics

  • Deliberate deception
    • Phony facts
      • My Experience: typically used in high-level domains and backed up by “experience”. Hardly ever done with hard, easily falsifiable facts.
    • Ambiguous authority
    • Dubious intentions
    • Less than full disclosure is not the same as deception
  • Psychological warfare
    • Stressful situations
      • My Experience: one that comes to mind is being pulled into a surprise meeting having to explain myself to a panel that has clearly discussed and prepared for the issue beforehand.
    • Personal attacks
    • The good-guy/bad-guy routine
    • Threats
  • Positional pressure tactics
    • Refusal to negotiate
    • Extreme demands
    • Escalating demands
    • Lock-in tactics
    • Hardhearted partner
    • A calculated delay
      • My Experience: used when someone wants to try to stay in control of something and they sense someone else ‘encroaching’ on their territory.
    • “Take it or leave it”
  • Don’t be a victim


  1. Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.4-5: “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…” 

  2. A bottom line is a non-negotiable position by definition. 

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