Why we Should Never Bargain Over Positions in Negotiations

Negotiating in a VUCA world

Conversation is a tool we can use to make sense of the world, each other, expand our horizons, learn new things, discuss ideas, make decisions, or understand issues and reach agreement. There is an art to arguing well, as many a trial attorney knows. Politicians and parents alike know that whenever we hear about a break in talks, we're headed for trouble. 

The ability to negotiate well is no just the domain of diplomats, it's a skill we should develop and practice to navigate better many situations in everyday life.

We think we are good negotiators, all it takes is having a position and arguing for it. A classic example is the haggling that goes on in open markets all around the world during the holidays. The conversation about the provenance and value of an item goes back and forth until either one of the two parties relents, or they achieve no agreement… and the nice museum we wanted to visit is now closed.

Getting to “Yes”

From working on a contract or preparing to ask for a raise, to planning the family vacation, reaching a forced compromise is not as powerful as achieving agreement on the best possible outcome. In Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving in Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Process caution us about the dangers of bargaining over positions.

They say we can use three criteria to judge any method of negotiation:

  1. it should produce a wise agreement (if agreement is possible)
  2. it should be efficient
  3. it should improve or at least not damage the relationship between parties

The definition of wise agreement is “one that meets the legitimate interests of each side to the extent possible, resolves conflicting interests fairly, is durable, and takes community interests into account.” Which is why reaching a compromise by going back and forth on positions —telling the other party what we want right off the bat— may get the job done, but fails to meet the criteria of wise agreement.

“Because I say so”

The key to becoming successful negotiators is to get to understand and address the legitimate concerns of another or multiple parties. Negotiation is about substance —what's going on that matters?

When our position starts with “because I say so,” it may sound harsh —and we may even be able to pull a hard bargain over it— but long term it will not win us any friends, or at worst obscure potentially more important underlying issues. We need to get beyond the thing itself, the price, terms of a contract, outcome we seek.

On the other hand, if we are total softies who shy away from confrontation and have a burning desire to be nice and trusting, we may very well end up losing our shirts in the process. We may need to become familiar or more aware of our boundaries in this case. This tendency to want others to like us is a strong pull in a culture where we want to belong, fit in, and be accepted.

Learning negotiation properly is about understanding its process —the “win” is at “meta-game” level.

What game are we playing? Say Fisher and Ury, “The answer to the question of whether to use soft positional bargaining or hard is neither. Change the game.” Their answer is an alternative they call, principled negotiation or negotiation on the merits.

Because it's fair

It takes into account four points, each dealing with a basic element of negotiation with a suggestion on what to do:

1. people — separate the people from the problem

If we see each other as adversaries across the table, with the problem in the middle, we see the other as part of it. Instead, we should think of us as working on the same side of the table, both focused on the issue.

In coaching we say “hard on issues, soft on people” to remember this point. Because when we involve people in the mix, we open the door to egos and emotions. We put a stake in the ground, and our identity now depends on staying consistent with ourselves. We lose sight of why we're talking.

People have different perceptions of what is going on, we tell ourselves stories based on very little information —and we may forego asking for clarification, or they may have difficulty communicating with clarity. This is not just a cultural or language issue, either.

2. interests — focus on interests, not positions

Physicist Richard Feynman would say, “focus your efforts on what really matters.” There may be more going on than meets the eye. When we start with positions, we don't see the formula that got someone there. What do they really want? What does it look like? Where are we going?

Specificity here matters, as does meeting the legitimacy test. Because the end result is helping the other side see they might feel the same way in your place. Which is a good way to also take into consideration their interests. When we use cognitive empathy to begin a conversation on interests, we communicate our desire to put ourselves in their shoes.

We don't spend enough time on the problem, putting answers before the reasoning. The other tendency is to look back instead of forward. A good conversation gives us the ability to shape what the future looks like together. Being specific and concrete helps, but we should also remain flexible, open to a range of options.

3. options — generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do

Broadening options gives us the space to think through the issues. It takes some pressure away because we stop seeing the situations as an either/or issue. Pressure narrows our vision, shortens our breath — we may even discover we're holding it.

Without pressure, and yet still within the constraints of our interests in play, we become more creative. Creativity is good, especially in a high-stakes game. To encourage creative thinking, we should set aside some time to come up with options that deliver mutual gain.

4. criteria — insist that the result be based on some objective standard

A fair standard should be independent of what either party determines. Letting market value, or expert opinion —where there is enough probability in domains that stay fairly consistent— scientific judgement, custom, precedent or law determine the outcome, for example.

This helps us avoid the push and pull of what each party may or may not be willing to give the other.

When we go from “because I say so” to “because it's fair” we reach wise agreements.

Execution imperative

As Philip Tetlock says, “beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be guarded.” Why argue over positions, stay locked into an ego game, getting tied into it when we can get creative with a real solution? Arguing over positions blinds us from the legitimate concerns.

It's also inefficient as it creates the wrong incentives —wasting time by splitting the decision-making into more decisions to move from extremes, for example, and depleting our energy by cognitive load. Thus preventing clear thinking.

Then there is the issue of lost relationships over something that may have been resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Positional bargaining is more difficult still when there are multiple parties involved —B2B sales comes to mind, in general complex decisions where multiple stakeholders have a say and it takes only one person who says “no” to take us back to square one.

In a world of increased volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA), more organizations make group decisions. Plus collectives do better at solving probabilistic problems. Once a group makes a decision based on a position, it's much harder to change. Harder still when the ultimate “yes/no” person is not even at the negotiating table.

Strategizing along the continuum

A principled negotiation, say Fisher and Ury, has three stages —analysis, planning, and discussion. Each requires preparation.

To diagnose the situation, we go int information-gathering mode, collecting what is available, organizing it so we can analyze and think about the problem or issue. Say Fisher and Ury:

You will want to consider the people problems of partisan perceptions, hostile emotions, and unclear communication, as well as to identify your interests and those of the other side. You will want to note options already on the table and identify any criteria already suggested as a basis for agreement.

To generate ideas and decide what to do, we should prepare to address what we uncover. What matters most? What comes first, then second, then third? We should identify realistic objectives and have additional options and criteria to draw from.

We should follow the same process during the discussion stage. The hardest part here is to maintain open communication lines as we acknowledge and address differences in perception or potential feelings of frustration or anger.

Good negotiation skills can make a big difference. Rather than bargaining on positions and trying to be right all the time, to put it with Edward de Bono, we should seek to be interested, have an open mind. Richard Feynman would encourage us to use second-level thinking, and be curious about what else might be going on that is not immediately obvious.


Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving in by Roger Fisher and William Ury makes for good reference when the stakes are high and in everyday life.