Lance Brett Hall

Stories Make Meaning. How Do We Make Stories?

Negotiating, Narrative, and Getting To Yes


I picked up a copy of Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher and William Ury. I had heard of it, and thought it sounded like it might have a few interesting tips.

I was surprised that the main points of the book are an application of storytelling structure. I probably shouldn’t have been, considering how storytelling has been known to influence behavior.

The main idea of the book is that people typically negotiate on position. This is fairly straightforward. I say I want to buy something for $10, the seller will accept nothing less than $20. We might haggle and find common ground. In higher-stakes negotiations, though, we’ll likely both end up with less than what we hoped for. One or both of us will look weak because we gave in. We will probably have damaged what business, diplomatic, or personal relationship there might have been.

The better way, say Fisher and Ury, is “principled negotiation, or negotiation on the merits”.

The idea is that people lock themselves in to a position to begin a negotiation, taking a tough stance and thinking that digging themselves in (stubbornness) is the way to get what they want.

As it turns out, the way to get what you want is talking about what you want.

Good negotiators inquire past the individual demands made, and try and find out why. A specific position is an expression of a more general need. Once that need or desire is identified and expressed, then both sides can find objective criteria based on the fulfillment of those needs, and come as close to possible as a win-win for all sides.

The work of a negotiation is the preparation, levelheadedness, and the people skills to get to the point where the real needs are being discussed, and the merits of each solution is being discussed.

There are two layers to the book which parallel story structure:

First, in the negotiation process, the problem is not the positions people take and their specifics. If people dig themselves in to a specific position, yes, that’s a problem for the negotiation process.

The actual problem, though, that someone comes to a negotiation table to address is that they’re not getting what they need. If you’re at a negotiation table, what you think you need is butting heads with what the other side thinks they need. Negotiation is the process of reconciling those needs and coming up with specifics which satisfy as many common needs as possible.

This is how a story moves: it starts with a problem and proceeds to a solution. In other words, when most people negotiate, they’re doing it backwards, starting with bickering over solutions, and probably never getting to address the actual problem.

Good negotiating delicately moves past the initial demands, and looks for objective, mutual solutions to problems.

Second, the book itself is very well laid out, very much like a story. I knew I was going to be reading a good book when the first section was titled The Problem!

It’s a good read. Because of its universality (we all negotiate!), it’s a great read with good tools to have in your pocket (we all tell stories!).