The Art Of Principled Negotiation

“Oh, it’s already eight o’clock. You’re supposed to be in bed by eight. Quick, off you go.”

“But I don’t want to go to bed.”

“Eight o’clock is your bedtime. Come on, get yourself into bed.”

“But can’t I play one more game with Uncle Jake?”

“No, it’s late enough. It’s now past your bedtime.”

“Just one more game?”

What happens now? Will the parent give in? Should they stick to their position? What happens if the parent does give in and the child plays another game? What if after another game, the argument starts all over again?

These types of negotiations can be called positional bargaining. The two people involved take up a position, and the aim is to have a contest of wills to see who is willing to make the most concessions. But making concessions is very hard for us humans. Our instinctive reaction is to justify our position and defend it from attack. However, this can result in us becoming more locked into that position. Our ego also becomes connected with our position and to save face; we lock ourselves in even further.

A hard bargainer will stick to his or her position tenaciously to show they can not be pushed around. But in so doing they may escalate the tension between both parties, not reach an agreement and cause serious rifts to the relationship. On the other hand, a soft bargainer will make concessions readily to reach a deal quickly. However, this undermines their autonomy, and they are in danger of being bullied or taken advantage of.

So should one be a hard bargainer or a soft bargainer? Or is there a place in between? If so, where?

What if we ask a different set of questions entirely? Is there a better way of negotiating than positional bargaining? The answer to that is yes, there is. It is called Principled Negotiation. Principled Negotiation is the method that Roger Fisher and William Ury outline in their book; “Getting To Yes: Negotiating without giving in”.

The key idea we must understand about negotiation is that it is not about winning and losing. If you go into a negotiation with the mindset that your position must win, you have essentially already lost. Even if you manage to maintain your position, the destructive nature of positional bargaining will leave you worse off. Negotiation is about two parties working side-by-side to craft a solution in which both enjoy a better outcome.

There are four essential parts to principled negotiation.
  1. Separate the people from the problem.
  2. Look for underlying interests or concerns
  3. Create options
  4. Make decisions based on objective criteria

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

Separate The people From The Problem.

We are often too quick to label people. When someone doesn’t agree with us or do what we want them to do, we can be tempted to call them lazy, arrogant, disrespectful, rude or impolite. We jump to thinking that there is a problem with the person, forgetting that there might be a problem with what we are asking them to do. The truth is that, in most situations, what we are asking simply doesn’t align with their interests. This is what needs to be discussed.

In a negotiation, one should focus on describing the problem based on its impact on you and what you feel, rather than on what they did or didn’t do and why. For example, “I feel let down” rather than, “you broke your word”. Or “I feel discriminated against” rather than, “you’re a racist”.

Principled negotiation also calls us to focus on solving a problem rather than aim at “fixing” a person. Imagine you and another person are on a life raft in the middle of the ocean, and you’ve steadily been eating through your food supply. The first way that you can state the problem is, “The other person is eating all the food”. But the second way to state the problem is to say, “The food is running low.” In the first way of stating the problem, the person is the problem while in the second statement, the situation is the problem. The former encourages you towards using force or violence, while the latter helps you to work together to find a solution to your shared problem.

Focus On The Underlying Interests

None of us like being bullied into things. We have valid concerns that we want others to address before we just go along with something. We also have a variety of interests that play a large part in our decisions. An excellent place to start in finding the interests of the other party is to look out for some of our fundamental human needs. These include autonomy, security, economic wellbeing, recognition, and a sense of belonging.

Taking the time to find the underlying interests of the parties involved is vital in resolving tensions. Failing to do so and fixating on positions can escalate the possibility of violence. One demonstration of this occurred when the Iraqi government leased land to some farmers after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. In the agreement that the government had with the farmers, there was a clause stating that if oil was found, then the government would have the right to sell the land to the national oil company. Oil was indeed found, and the farmers were told to get off the land. But the farmers said, “No, we won’t go.” 

The government threatened them with police action. The farmers replied, “You have guns, we also have guns, and we will defend our farms.” 

The government then threatened military action. But before bloodshed occurred, a negotiator stepped in. He asked the national oil company, “What do you plan to do with the land over the next few years?”

They replied, “We plan to do some mapping and seismic surveying, we won’t be building anything substantial over the next few years.”

The negotiator then asked the farmers, “Why can’t you leave your lands now?”

They replied, “Our crops will be ready to harvest in six weeks. Losing all our hard work now would ruin us.”

When the two parties locked themselves into a position, things escalated quickly and the possibility of violence become very real. Finding out the underlying interests and concerns of both parties allowed for a peaceful agreement to be reached. In fact, the oil company hoped to employ many of the farmers in its building projects. They were also happy for farming to continue in between the oil derricks.

At first, we often think that the interests of two parties must always be opposed. For example, If I have an interest in defending myself, then you must have an interest in attacking me. Or, the tenant has an interest in low rent while the landlord has an interest in high rent. Yet when we start looking at underlying interests, we usually find that more interests are either shared or compatible than those that are opposed.

Take as an example, a landlord and a tenant. Their mutual interests include:
  • Both want stability.
  • A well-maintained apartment
  • Want a good relationship with each other
Create Options For Mutual Gain

Once we have identified the underlying interests, we can create options that satisfy the needs of both parties involved. These should be wide-ranging and include out-of-the-box solutions. Often when people make employment negotiations, the focus is on the money involved. However, when we look at the underlying interests that people have, there may be other things that are more valuable to people than merely having more money. Things such as time-flexibility, the location of the work, and the security of the job all can play major roles in a negotiation. Note that we must find the underlying interests of that specific person and must not just assume that everybody has the same underlying interests.

Creating options that satisfy the other person can be hard for us psychologically. At times we can feel nearly a sense of disloyalty towards ourselves if we think of ways that the negotiation could benefit the other person. We have a habit of seeing life as a zero-sum game where gain for one person must mean a loss for another. We must remember that this is simply not true and that decisions for mutual gain are possible. In fact, much of your satisfaction in a negotiation can come from the other person also having a satisfying outcome, thus strengthening your relationship.

Another way that we can find mutual gain is through a shared goal. Working for a common purpose is one of the most powerful means of bringing people together. In the infamous Robber’s Cave psychological experiment, the first phase of the experiment sought to bring the two groups of boys involved into a state of tribalistic warfare. However, what was interesting about the second phase of the experiment was how quickly animosity evaporated when the two groups of boys worked together on a common purpose.

As you craft options for mutual gain, you want to get to the point where you have taken their needs, desires and interests fully into account. Ideally, you will want to do this to the extent that they will be able to answer with a simple, “Yes” to your proposed option.

Make Decisions Based On Objective Criteria

“Because I said so” or, “Because I want you to” are not good reasons for someone to agree to something you’ve proposed. These options are possible threats and may result in a battle of wills. We want to be able to point outside of ourselves to more objective criteria that both parties are happy to be subject to. Objective criteria will help both parties keep their wants and desires in the negotiation reasonable.

For example, imagine you are building a house. You and the builder disagree about the depth of the foundations. To resolve this disagreement, you both agree that you will subject your decision to whatever foundation depth is stated within a particular building code.

Objective criteria can come in a variety of forms, be they principles, standards, precedents, facts, codes, laws or even simulations. It cannot be stressed enough that a criterion is not necessarily an absolute. It should not be forced on someone. There is no “one right criteria”. You want to find criteria that both parties will voluntarily adhere to.

Another method of seeking fairer agreements is to use the “I cut, you choose” approach. This approach is based on the scenario of a piece of cake that two children want to eat. How do you divide the cake in such a way that both children will find it fair? The solution is for one child to cut the cake and the other to choose first. Now there is an incentive on the first child to cut the cake as fairly as possible.

Regarding the use of principles, there is a definite (even though it may seem subtle) difference between using principles as objective criteria and using principles as an argument for your position. A principled negotiator is open to reasoned persuasion on the merits of using a principle while a positional bargainer is not.

When it comes to pressure being exerted in a negotiation, the other person may try to use bribes, threats, appeal to trust, or a simple refusal to budge. In all these cases the principled response is the same;
  • Invite them to state their reasoning
  • State objective criteria that you think will apply

The key is to not yield to pressure but rather only yield to principle and sound reasoning.

Thinking About Your BATNA

Many people in business, parenting and other interactions go into a negotiation with a “bottom line” which they have picked, and they feel the other person should not cross. A bottom line is often in the form of a price or specific due date or time. But locking yourself into such a bottom line doesn’t leave you open to possibilities that you might not have anticipated — opportunities that may produce a better overall outcome.

A much better option is to keep a BATNA in mind. BATNA stands for the “Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement”. When weighing up the proposed options, one must keep in mind whether they are actually better than if no negotiated agreement is reached. We need to ask ourselves, “Would my life be better off reaching no agreement with this person than it would be if I accept the current option?

Thinking about your BATNA can be particularly helpful when you are dealing with someone who seems more powerful than you. It is also interesting to reflect on times in our lives when other people have in effect chosen their BATNA above a negotiated agreement with us. Children in particular, keenly feel the difference in power status when it comes to negotiations with adults. Is it any wonder that they often choose their BATNA or fake their agreement in order to escape a negotiation that has no sufficient gains for them?

What To Do When They Won’t Play

In friendships, business and any other areas of voluntary negotiation, people may refuse to deal with each other through principled negotiation. Perhaps they insist on hard positional bargaining and then go on the attack. We can easily get trapped in a game of attack and defence. How can we avoid this?

The first thing to try to consistently use the four principles outlined at the beginning of the article. Modelling principled negotiation may be enough for the other person to agree to play eventually.
If that doesn’t work, it is time to shift the focus on them and employ what the authors of “Getting to Yes” call Negotiation Jujitsu. If that still doesn’t work, we can sometimes also use a third party to mediate disputes.

When using Negotiation Jujitsu, we need to recognise the three primary ways that the other person will attack:
  1. Asserting their position forcefully.
  2. Attacking your ideas
  3. Attacking you
So what to do about these?

When they assert their positions, don’t reject them. When they attack your ideas, don’t defend them. When they attack you, don’t counterattack. First and foremost, we must be willing to break the vicious cycle of going back and forth. We must refuse to react. Instead, just as in the martial art of jujitsu, we need to sidestep and then deflect their attack. We must find ways to deflect their attacks against the problem.

Deflecting Their Assertion Of A Position.

Neither reject nor accept their position. Treat it as one possible option. Ask them how it addresses the problem at hand. Discuss how their option meets the interest of each party using more objective criteria. Seek out the principles that underlie their position. Discuss with them hypothetically what would happen if their position was accepted.

Deflecting Their Attacks On Your Ideas.

Invite criticism and advice. Ask them what is wrong with your idea and what interests your proposal has not taken into account. From this, you can then rework your ideas in light of what you learn. Another way of going about it is to turn the situation around. Ask them to state options that take into account both of your interests.

Deflecting their attacks on you.

Firstly, just let them let off steam. Listen in such a way that shows you understand what they are saying. Reframe the attack on you as an attack on the problem instead. A further method you may want to employ is to ask questions and pause. Ask a sincere question, and when you do, resist the temptation to immediately ask a second or third question or even a further comment of your own. If you find their answers insufficient, don’t be afraid to wait. People get uncomfortable with silence, particularly if they are not entirely confident of their answers.

Negotiation Jujitsu is not always easy. Ironically, the day after I wrote the majority of this article, I found myself in a situation where the other person employed all three of the attacks described above. While I certainly tried to put into practice many of the things I had read in “Getting To Yes”, eventually I came to the point where I realised my Negotiation Jujitsu skills were just not developed enough. It was at this point that I deployed my BATNA.

To be honest, not reaching a negotiated agreement was rather devastating at first. Walking away was hard, but it is essential to remember that one shouldn’t be afraid to do so. After all, that’s what a BATNA is there for.

Why Principled Negotiation Is Important In A Family

Within a family, particularly a family with young children, there isn’t an option of walking away. Because of this, modelling and using principled negotiation becomes essential within this context. If at all possible, parents should use principled negotiation as early as they can. This helps ensure that it is the primary way that disputes are resolved within the family. We must remember that conflicts and disputes are not things to be feared. Most of the harmful effects on relationships from conflicts occur when these conflicts remain unresolved. And yet, if we work together to solve a conflict and find a better outcome for all, we end up building relationships that are closer and deeper than any we could have had without the initial conflict.

A Negotiated Sleep-time

I started this article with an example of a child and parent interaction over bedtimes. So how would this scenario look different if principled negotiation were used instead? In fact, I did have an opportunity to observe this a few days ago. My girlfriend and I were invited around to visit some of her relatives. After a nice meal and a bit of play, it was beginning to get late. So the children were asked to go to bed. They did go although they made a few more appearances as they were still somewhat excited by having visitors. As for us adults, we sat around chatting. However, the youngest of the children just couldn’t get to sleep, and he continued to think of a variety of excuses that would give him a valid reason to ‘check-in’ on the adults in the lounge.

Separate the people from the problem
There is a temptation here to call the child naughty and disobedient for getting out of bed and staying awake, but in doing so, we will have lost sight of the problem. The problem is that the child can’t sleep because understandably they are excited and fascinated by having visitors in the house. When we think about it, the child’s struggle to sleep is entirely understandable. The fact is that most of us adults have likely been in similar situations in our childhoods as well. Our ability to not fall asleep wasn’t because we were purposely trying to frustrate our parents, but rather it was a reaction to the fascination of having visitors and what might be going on in the lounge.

Focus on underlying interests
One of our underlying needs as humans is to have social closeness. We don’t like feeling isolated or excluded from a group. Going to bed while you can hear those people you love being social in the next room can feel very isolating. Also, the child wanted to spend more time with the visitors he had such fun with earlier. These interests that the child has are understandable and have little to do with a desire to be “naughty”.

The parents also had some underlying interest. They feared they were going to have a very tired and grumpy child in the morning if the child didn’t get some sleep soon. Also, they wanted to have a conversation with their visitors.

Create options for mutual gain
When it became apparent that the lounge walk-throughs were not going to stop anytime soon, we ended up discussing what we could do. The mother of the child suggested that perhaps she could hold the child on her lap. Doing this had helped the child in the past when they had had trouble sleeping. So that is what happened next time the child came in. However, the child didn’t manage to fall asleep, although they did certainly seem more content. While the need for closeness had been met, other factors such as the room being bright and too much conversation may have contributed to the child not being able to fall asleep.

After some time, my girlfriend gently guided him back to his room and his bed, where she gently rubbed his back, and he fell asleep in a couple of minutes. His underlying interests had been met. He had closeness and connection with his cousin while also being comfortable, snuggled up in his bed.

Make decisions based on objective criteria
In this situation, one can’t exactly appeal to some sort of law in regards to children’s bedtimes. I can’t recall any appeals to objective criteria being made, but there are certainly more objective appeals that the parents could have made. In this case, using precedent may be a criterion that parents and children can find agreement on. Parents could put forward precedents such as “It is now far later than when you usually go to sleep.” Or they could point out, “You usually sleep around eleven hours a night. If you get woken up by your siblings in the morning at the usual time, you are not going to get much sleep. You may be very tired.” They could also add, “Do you remember the last time when you got very little sleep and how it affected your mood?”

Note, that just because the parents could point to an objective precedent doesn’t mean that the child must accept that it applies in this particular instance. Just because something was always done a certain way in the past doesn’t mean that it needs to be done the same way in the present. However, appealing to precedent and objective statements of fact may help the child acknowledge that they do need to get some sleep. The child is trying to balance this with their need to be socially involved.

The thing is that once we feel we have understood each other people feel much more at ease in cooperating. The outcome that was reached in this situation seemed to have been well received by all involved.


Ultimately I think that principled negotiation is about being both curious and creative. Curious, because we need to take the time actually to understand the other person. And creative, because we refuse to accept the idea that life is just a zero-sum game. In fact, we realise that negotiated agreements can not only be mutual but also that we can gain better outcomes when we work with other people than we can achieve on our own. In principled negotiation, we do not seek a winner and loser. Our only aim is a better outcome for all.