Roger Fisher and Bill Ury are part of the Harvard Negotiation Project. They devised a system of negotiating that is based upon a sort of collaborative learning and they called it principled negotiation. They wrote a little book called Getting to yes that describes their technique. It is a four-part method.
First, separate the people from the problem. They suggest this for two reasons. One, if we can shift the identification of the issue from the other person to a mutual problem, it will not be perceived as readily as disrespectful—and disrespecting anyone is a great way to make sure that they will oppose you in turn no matter how impeccable your logic. Two, separating the people from the problem enables the former enemies to be collaborative problem-solvers.
The second part of the principled negotiation model is to separate interests from positions. By this, they mean that our stated positions may be quite opposite sounding, but underneath you can almost always find similar over overlapping interests, and therefore potentially a way to construct a workable solution that achieves those ends satisfactorily for all.
Hence, if I love nuclear power and you want solar power, the good principled negotiation expert will interview us both and find out that we both want lights and radio and refrigeration. How we get them is all that separates us and now we have that common set of goals that unite our collaborative search for a workable plan to achieve that electrical power generation.
Or, if we are partners in a melting down marriage, I want to save it and you want a divorce and our principled negotiation expert can help us work beyond these positions to our common interests, which may include, for instance, that you want happiness and I want happiness. That common interest is more important than marital status and it opens up some daylight toward manageable resolution, or at least the discussion becomes a bit more possible—especially when we are careful to follow the first guideline of continuing to separate the people from the problem.
The third piece of this puzzle is to invent options for mutual gain. The best way to do this is to take the time to brainstorm what the elements of potentially satisfactory solutions might be for each of the parties. A classic brainstorm is a process of uncritically generating ideas from all the parties, avoiding all evaluation—not even, “That’s a great idea,” until there is some saturation of possible items. All ideas are welcome except for those that even ‘humorously’ eliminate, exile, imprison, hospitalize, incapacitate or kill any of the parties. The best mediators simply take notes, preferably on a medium visible to all parties—e.g., chalkboard, whiteboard, projected screen of text being typed out, large paper—and moderate against evaluation and in favor of all suggestions, even those that sound somewhat selfish or unrealistic. The most seemingly harebrained options can often contain usable components that end up as some piece of the final unique synthesis that was not remotely obvious to anyone before the free input began in a moderated environment free from interruption and dismissal.
The fourth and final piece of the principled negotiation model to insist on objective criteria. Thus, if I want students to read 1,000 pages of text in a 10-week term in a four credit class, plus write a 100-page paper, those students will very reasonably seek an objective criterion of what most institutions would consider a fair amount of time that the average student should devote to a four-credit class in the quarter system, and then honestly discuss what that might mean. So, if an undergraduate student is considered full-time taking 12 credits, that translates into approximately one-third of a 40-hour work week, or a bit more than 12 hours of work per week. If four of those hours are spent in class and the remaining hours are spent reading and writing, and I can admit that it takes about 10-30 minutes to properly read and understand each page of the academic text, plus another 90 minutes to adequately write a good academic page, I can soon see that I have dramatically overassigned work to these poor students and I’m much more prepared to propose an alternative, reasonable workload.
If, on the other hand, I devise all these assignments only thinking of producing the smartest and most accomplished students on Earth, without considering what a fair work week might be, I will naturally overload them and engender a legitimate rebellion. There are discussions that can help establish fair standards in almost all negotiations, and the first question to ask of ourselves and all parties—a question that really demands a yes—is, “Can we all agree that we want a resolution to our problem that is fair to everyone?”
It turns out that this method does also take some fallback techniques to prevent powerful parties from dominating in asymmetric conflict. So, if one party is trying to run rough over everyone else, it is helpful to all parties to understand and, if necessary, default to the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. This BATNA is in some ways the natural consequence if negotiation fails. For instance, if I am trying to dicker with an airlines over price, they have a BATNA which is to find another passenger to take my place if I walk out of the negotiation, or settle for some loss of income. My BATNA is to find another airline, take a train or boat or car or bike, or just stay home. It is not good negotiating to fail to think about my BATNA or the BATNA of all parties. These will be crucial to rational negotiation.
If the advantage I stand to gain is not much better than defaulting to my BATNA, I have little motivation to negotiate, let alone make concessions to anyone. If, on the other hand, I can gain a lot by negotiating, or I will lose a lot with all possible BATNAs, I am very motivated to continue to try.
Which brings us to the most dangerous party, the conflict industry. If a party actually gains by continuing, ongoing conflict, negotiations are window-dressing, a mask to fool everyone into thinking the party is trying for peace and justice. If, for example, I am in peace talks and I profit highly from the sales of weapons and other military purchases, I am only mouthing concern about peace and am actually subverting it. Or, if my status and political power is dependent upon being the adversarial leader in a conflict, I am more threatened by peace that makes me irrelevant and unemployed that by continued conflict, where I am the champion. This is one reason to keep the charismatic leadership out of the negotiating room and to make sure that all citizens know that the costs of war are far higher than the costs of peace.