An Introduction to Principled Negotiation

Common sense but is it common practice?

An Introduction to Principled Negotiation

The idea of principled negotiation was first developed by Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project. It was set out in their famous book, 'Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In', and is now taught in mediation training and business schools around the world. 

Principled negotiation consists of a series of negotiation techniques and strategies which are designed to help parties achieve a fair outcome. These can be applied in any negotiation, whether it is in business or in our everyday lives. 

It is often described as 'integrative negotiation' or a win-win negotiation, however this is not strictly accurate. While principled negotiation techniques are designed to maximise the chances of a win-win outcome, this may not always be possible. 

Even when a win-win is not possible, the 'Getting to Yes' approach will still help to ensure you are not taken advantage of and that the outcome achieved is fair and reasonable. 


Separate the People from the Problem

The first thing to focus on is separating the people from the problem.

The authors of 'Getting to Yes’ noticed that a common barrier to success in negotiation is a tendency to blame and to make things personal, rather than focussing on solving the problem.

In most cases, the people involved just want a fair deal for themselves. They are not out to hurt the other side for the sake of it or on some other personal vendetta. 

Going into a negotiation with a problem-solving mentality can dramatically improve the chances of success. For example, rather than dismissing the other party as stupid, consider why they are reacting this way and ask probing questions to get to the bottom of it. It may sound obvious, but it is in our nature to become defensive in these situations. This is something that takes practice and conscious effort. 


Focus on Interests, Not Positions

A related 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 classic example given in the book is about two kids arguing over an orange. They both stick to their position of wanting the orange, without considering why the other actually wants it. Ultimately, they decide to split it in half.

One kid then eats his half of the orange and throws away the peel. The other uses the peel of his half to bake a cake and throws away the orange. If they had focussed on their respective interests, they each could have had all they needed from the orange.

In many ways, this is the core of negotiation. Figuring out the other parties interests is not always easy, but can be accomplished using effective communication and building trust. 


Invent Options for Mutual Gain

The next point is simply to be creative. Once you begin to grasp the parties interests, think of options that can fulfil those interests. 

Generate options, use brainstorming techniques (ie no idea is a bad idea) and think outside the box. 

This is where the opportunity for an integrative, 'win-win' solution comes in.  For example, where the negotiation is over money, think if there's anything else you can offer that would be more valuable to them, and cheaper for you. 


Insist on Using Objective Criteria

The final point is to avoid a so-called 'battle of wills', whereby each person seeks to use their personal power to pressure the other party to accepting a deal. 

It is much more persuasive to refer to objective benchmarks such as independent valuations, industry standards, precedents or efficiency to support your position. 

As explained above, this works as much in everyday life as it does in business. Think about a simple discussion between two children of who gets to ride in the front seat.

Say the older brother uses his seniority to insist on getting the front seat without further reasons. If the younger brother referred to precedent and said 'yes but you had the seat on the way here and we always take turns out of fairness', this is likely to be much more persuasive (at least to the parents!).

This may be common sense, but consciously focusing on such objective criteria in preparations can help you make a much more persuasive case in the negotiation itself. 



Many of these techniques are common sense, but it is amazing how often they are neglected in practice. Understanding this theory and making a conscious effort to apply them in any negotiation can dramatically improve your negotiation success. 

This was just a basic introduction to the principled negotiation approach taught by the Harvard Negotiation Project. If you'd like to learn more, then sign up to Mediator Academy and take our Introduction to Principled Negotiation CPD Course.


Topics: Negotiation

Want to sharpen your negotiation skills?

Mediator Academy's Negotiation Course is taught by one of Harvard's

very own graduates and an acknowledged expert in Negotiation.

Get Started Now