What Trump Can Learn From the Harvard Negotiation Project

He could start by separating the people from the problem

What Trump Can Learn From the Harvard Negotiation Project

President Donald Trump has consistently portrayed himself as a master negotiator and dealmaker. But how do his negotiation strategies compare with the principled negotiation styles and theory developed over many years by academics and practitioners?

In their seminal book on the subject, ‘Getting to Yes’, Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project espoused a simple method for negotiators to follow. They looked at common mistakes that negotiators made and distilled 4 key principles to apply in a negotiation.


  1. Separate the People from the Problem

The first element of the method is to separate the people from the problem.

Negotiating parties are people first. They have emotions, values and unique backgrounds that can affect the way they perceive an issue. The authors of 'Getting to Yes’ noticed that a common problem in negotiation is a tendency to blame and to make things personal, without making a real effort to understand the other side’s perspective.

This is ultimately counterproductive. It can cloud the parties’ judgment and prevent them from exploring rational solutions to the real problem at hand.

While it is difficult to know whether Trump follows this principle behind closed doors, he is undoubtedly quick to blame and to focus on personalities in the public sphere.

A frequent target for his accusations is his predecessor, Barack Obama, and his supporters. For example, in recent news there have been several leaks relating to US national security. Speaking to Fox News, he deflected “I think President Obama is behind it because his people are certainly behind it”. 

Admittedly, he is a politician first, but how such accusations help to solve the problem of national security leaks is anyone’s guess. To be fair, this blame culture is part of a wider problem in American politics. Nonetheless, Trump’s approach has tended to add fuel to the fire, rather than seeking to heal and unify.


  1. Focus on Interests, Not Positions

Another fundamental problem that Fisher and Ury identified was that people too often bargain over positions rather than focusing on underlying interests. This can result in a rigid view based on one’s own (limited) information. Often this ends up in a crude form of haggling and a failure to explore options for value creation.

The research done by the authors demonstrates that this approach is inefficient, results in unwise agreements, and is bad for relationships. It’s even worse in complex, multi-party negotiations such as those in which POTUS is typically involved.

Once again, it is difficult to know what goes on behind closed doors, but Trump’s sweeping use of ‘truthful hyperbole’ suggests a highly positional approach.

An obvious example is his campaign promise to build a border wall and have Mexico pay for it. These declarations may have roused the passionate support that paved his way to the White House, but this comes at a high cost. Trump must enter negotiations with one arm tied behind his back. Rather than exploring innovative and efficient ways to solve the legitimate concern of illegal immigration, he is now tied to a project that he has promised to his supporters in no uncertain terms.


  1. Invent Options for Mutual Gain

‘Getting to Yes’ teaches flexible and innovative thinking. It outlines techniques to encourage creative brainstorming and discussion, which can help flesh out value-creating options. Trump’s use of sweeping promises and statements, as described above, does not bode well because it effectively restricts the options available to him.

There is some evidence that he is learning. When asked in an interview with the Financial Times to clarify his statement that the United States was prepared to solve the North Korean problem without China, he was very ambiguous in his response: ‘I don’t have to say any more. Totally.’

All joking aside, his comments on the US-China summit negotiations did suggest a more flexible approach. He stated ‘I have great respect for China. I would not be at all surprised if we did something that would be very dramatic and good for both countries and I hope so.’

The ‘grand bargain’ he is hoping to achieve is suggestive of a flexible point of view. Keeping options on the table and adopting wide ranging discussions in this way is likely produce much better results overall.


  1. Insist on Using Objective Criteria

One of the most useful findings in ‘Getting to Yes’ was the importance of objective criteria. It has been scientifically proven that human beings instinctually place great importance on the concept of fairness.

This is not always rational. For example, a party to a negotiation may walk away with nothing rather than accept an offer they see as unfair. This is often the case even if accepting the offer would have left them better off. But determining what is fair is not always easy. This is where objective criteria can help.

Take the example of selling a house. When setting the price, it’s common sense to refer to an objective standard, such as the prices of similar houses recently sold on that street, or an independent valuation. If the buyer tries to negotiate on price, you can refer to these as objective evidence of the fair market value.

This is crucial to the Principled Negotiation approach, as it helps parties to find common ground and create a deal that they can objectively justify to both themselves and third parties.

Does Trump use this tool effectively? In some ways, he has turned it on its head by discrediting many of the traditional sources of objective criteria which governments rely on to make sense of their responsibilities. He has most notably discredited the media, but also academics and scientists - think Climate Change - and the judiciary, after they overturned his executive order on immigration.

On the one hand, this could make achieving agreement in negotiations difficult; as the people involved will be less likely to begin with objective points with which they all agree. Imagine negotiating a Climate Change treaty, when the parties can’t even agree on the underlying scientific facts.

On the other hand, it may be possible that discrediting traditional sources favours Trump in the short term, particularly in international diplomacy. Take away objective criteria, and you are left with the crude tools of haggling, such as power and leverage - something the United States has in spades. In the long term, however, the resulting inefficiencies are likely to leave everybody worse off.


In sum...

Trump once claimed that ‘we are going to win so much that you’re going to get tired of winning’. If he wishes for this to become true, perhaps he should consider a more principled approach to negotiation.

What do you think? Utterly hopeless? Or secret mastermind? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Want to learn more about the Harvard Negotiation Project and negotiation theory? Take one of our courses on Negotiation or watch one of the many Master Classes we have on Negotiation Skills, Tactics and Strategies.

Topics: Negotiation

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