Fisher and Ury’s Four Principles of Negotiation

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

GettingToYesConcept description

In their 1983 classic, Getting to yes – Negotiating agreement without giving in, Roger Fisher and William Ury set out four principles of effective negotiation.

These principles are summarized by Nicole Cutts (reference below) as follows.

Separate the people from the problem

Because people tend to become personally involved with the issues and their respective position, they may feel resistance to their position as a personal attack. Separating yourself and your ego from the issues allows you to address the problem without damaging relationships. It will also allow you to get a more clear view of the substance of the conflict.

Fisher and Ury identify three basic sorts of people problems: (1) different perceptions among the parties; (2) emotions such as fear and anger; and (3) communication problems. Cutts says that running from these very human issues will not help overcome them. Instead, one should:

  • Try to understand the other person’s viewpoint by putting yourself in the other’s place.
  • Do not assume that your worst fears will become the actions of the other party.
  • Do not blame or attack the other party for the problem.
  • Try to create proposals which should be appealing to the other party.
  • Acknowledge emotions and try to understand their source (understand that all feelings are valid even if you do not agree or understand them).
  • Allow the other side to express their emotions.
  • Try not to react emotionally to another’s emotional outbursts.
  • Symbolic gestures such as apologies or expressions of sympathy can help to defuse strong emotions.
  • Actively listen to the other party (give the speaker your full attention, occasionally summarizing the speaker’s points to confirm your understanding).
  • When speaking direct your speech toward the other party and keep focused on what you are trying to communicate.
  • You should avoid blaming or attacking the other person, speaking only about yourself.
  • Try using “I” statements, such as “I feel” or “I think.”
  • Think of each other as partners in negotiation rather than as adversaries.
Focus on interests not positions

When a problem is defined in terms of the parties’ underlying interests it is often possible to find a solution which satisfies both parties’ interests. All people will share certain basic interests or needs, such as the need for security and economic well-being. To identify, understand, and deal with both parties’ underlying interests you must:

  • Ask why the party holds the positions she or he does, and consider why the party does not hold some other possible position.
  • Explain your interests clearly.
  • Discuss these interests together looking forward to the desired solution, rather than focusing on past events.
  • Focus clearly on your interests, but remain open to different proposals and positions.

This is captured by the following image from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, adapted from Grzybowski and Morris (at, accessed 25 March 2016):

InterestsAndPositionsInvent options for mutual gain

Fisher and Ury identify four obstacles to generating creative problem solving options: (1) deciding prematurely on an option and thereby failing to consider alternatives; (2) being too intent on narrowing options to find the single answer; (3) defining the problem in win-lose terms; or (4) thinking that it is up to the other side to come up with a solution to the party’s problem.

They suggest ways to overcome these obstacles and generate creative options:

  • Separate the process of inventing options from the act of judging them.
  • Broaden the options on the table by brainstorming for all possible solutions to the problem.
  • Search for mutual gains by focusing on shared interests, and when the parties’ interests differ, seek options whereby those differences can be made compatible or even complementary.
  • Evaluate the ideas only after a variety of proposals have been made and start evaluations with the most promising proposals, refining and improving proposals at this point.
  • Make proposals that are appealing to the other side and with which the other side would ultimately find ease in agreement.
  • Identify the decision makers and target proposals directly toward them.
Insist on using objective criteria upon which to base agreement

According to Fisher and Ury, when interests are directly opposed, the parties should use objective criteria to resolve their differences. Allowing differences to spark a battle of egos and thus wills is inefficient, destroys relationships, and is unlikely to produce wise agreements. The remedy is to negotiate a solution based on objective criteria, independent of the will of either side.

Parties must first develop objective criteria that both parties agree to. Criteria should be both legitimate and practical, such as scientific findings, professional standards, or legal precedent. To test for objectivity, ask if both sides would agree to be bound by those standards.

Cutts summarizes the points to keep in mind when using objective criteria:

  • Frame each issue as a joint search for objective criteria. Ask for the reasoning behind the other party’s suggestions.
  • Reason as to which standards are most appropriate and how they should be applied. Keep an open mind.
  • Never yield to pressure, threats, or bribes – only to principles. When the other party stubbornly refuses to be reasonable, shift the discussion from a search for substantive criteria to a search for procedural criteria.

R. Nicole Cutts, Conflict Management – Using Principled Negotiation to Resolve Workplace Issues, at, accessed 25 March 2016. Cutts references Fisher, R., Ury, W. & Patton, B. (1991). Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in. New York: Penguin Books.

For another good book summary, see Tanya Glaser, Book Summary – Getting to Yes, Conflict Research Consortium, at, accessed 25 March 2016.

Atlas topic and subject

Negotiating (core topic) in Leadership Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 25 March 2016.

Image:, at, accessed 25 March 2016.