The writer explains the concepts to think of when at the negotiating table through the book ‘Getting to Yes’
Just a few months ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with my friend Pallavi Shah whom I called the ‘Accidental New Yorker’, and speaking to her about tourism and especially about bringing high-end tourism to India. You can read that interview in the January 2017 issue of this magazine. I regret having to tell you that she passed away on July 20th, at her apartment in New York. A workaholic and a consummate optimist, she worked on behalf of her clients till the very last day. We salute you – Pallavi – for all you have done for inbound tourism to India.
We often speak about how we managed to get what we wanted from the person on the other side of a deal, or how we got a great deal when buying a product or a service. I’m sure you’ve had an acquaintance mention to you that the price you paid, after a hard protracted negotiation, was much greater than what they had secured. It probably made you feel that your negotiating skills were low. Getting to Yes, written by Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project is a punchy, easy to read small book, now in its 3rd edition: its subtitle “Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” tells you what to expect. Fisher and Ury state their case succinctly “Everyone negotiates every day. Like Moliere’s Monsieur Jordain, who was delighted to learn that he had been speaking prose all his life, people negotiate even when they don’t think of themselves as doing so.”
At a class on negotiations I would ask the students leading questions, and the very first one would be: ‘When did you first have a serious negotiation?’ A typical answer would be ‘I have never done any negotiation.’ What they, the young budding executives, forget is that they negotiated with their parents when they were less than a year old; they would cry when they did not want their parents to do something, or cry to tell them that they did not want more milk. In one way or another we negotiate all the time. Often negotiations are verbal, but negotiations can be also conveying a feeling or a thought without saying a word. ‘Body language’ conveys more than the spoken word when it comes to negotiations.
At a late evening negotiating session that we were conducting with representatives of the Korean government-owned mobile telecom company, the discussion got stuck on an unimportant issue. In order to ease the tension, our team asked for a ‘time-out’. The Korean team of fifteen people, at the other side of the table, went into intense private discussions. Our small team of three got up, stretched our legs and decided to tell jokes to each other, leading to much laughter on our side of the table. This led the Korean negotiators to admonish us for our ‘rude’ behavior, and they insisted on getting their way on the particular point under discussion earlier. The Koreans shifted from serious thinking about the problem and focused instead on us as culturally different (and possibly) rude Americans. We readily agreed since we were not interested in that one issue but, rather, in several others that were to follow. Having got their way on one issue, it was easy to convince them that the next three issues of importance to us should be decided in our favour. This little episode illustrates that the Korean negotiators could not separate the people (us) from the bigger problem of securing a good price for the sale of Korea Telecom.
On another occasion, when we were nearing the conclusion of a protracted, but mutually successful negotiation on the purchase of fifty percent of Telenet, the cable companies owned by municipalities in the Flemish region of Belgium, my senior colleague wanted to take credit for the purchase of the company, and decided to sideline me. The negotiators on the Belgian side were absolutely delighted. They decided to take advantage of the fact that the new negotiator, even though he may have had more experience, did not know the details of what had been discussed and negotiated over the previous 18 months. My senior colleague did not understand why certain parts of the agreement were not entirely to our liking, and decided that I had given away too much and was lacking negotiating skills! He decided to take a strong position without considering other effective options to achieve a ‘win-win’ situation rather than a ‘zero sum’ game. Ultimately, a revised agreement was signed. However, the joint venture was not a great success. My colleague did not realize the negative impact of his style of negotiations. Several members of the Belgian negotiating team became members of the Telenet Board. The difficult style of negotiation of my senior colleague made it difficult to manage the company’s operations.
Drs. Roger Fisher and William Ury, in their fascinating little book – its only six inches by 4 inches and no more than an inch thick! – have given us several key concepts to think about when we are at the negotiating table. To me the most important are 1) separate people from the problem, 2) focus on interests, not positions, 3) invent options for mutual gain, 4) insist on using objective criteria, and lastly 5) know your BATNA – Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. In the case of our Korean negotiations, the Koreans decided to look at us (foreigners) with suspicion, and took their eye off the ‘ball’ (mutual benefit). In the case of the final negotiation for the purchase of 50% of Telenet, my colleague clearly focused on positions and his personal glory rather than on long term gain for all parties. In some instances, negotiators forget that there are many stakeholders who are not present at the negotiating table. It is imperative that every option should be critically studied to ensure that all parties get the benefit they require; it may not be perfect, but should be acceptable widely in light of other constraints.
Even though “Getting to Yes” is based on anecdotal thoughts and ideas, without clear empirical data to support the authors’ work, I recommend it to you highly. Keep this little book easily accessible. It may also be helpful to become part of the community ‘Program on Negotiation’ at the Harvard Law School that continues to provide useful tips and important links to current work on negotiations.
To all stakeholders, happy negotiating for gain!