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by Joseph de Rivera

This is a rational approach that attempts to create a solution that meets the interests of both parties. It may be contrasted with the usual bargaining over positions. In typical positional bargaining, the parties to a negotiation focus on their respective positions and attempt to affect some sort of compromise between these positions. In a sense there is a conflict of wills, and under these circumstances a person is tempted to either be hard or soft. One may be a hard, assertive bargainer, and strongly maintaining a bargaining position in order to protect one’s interests, or one may be soft and surrender one’s interests in order to maintain a valued friendship relationship. At best, some compromise is affected. By contrast, a party using principled negotiation avoids a focus on positions and initiates a search for the interests that underlie the bargaining positions. A position always reflects underlying interests and needs. These underlying interests are usually not communicated. They are often not fully realized by the person himself or herself. However, if they can be clarified there may be ways to meet these interests in a way that is a bit different from the announced position. If one party’s position is that the heat should be turned down, they may have an interest in being cooler, in paying less money for fuel, or in showing off a new sweater. A party asserting territorial possession may have an interest in prestige, defense, or insuring water resources.

With the underlying interests rather than the different positions in mind, a principled negotiator can be hard on solving interests and soft on the relationship. He or she can attempts to enlist the other party as an ally who can help create a solution that meets the interests of both parties. Thus, rather than arguing over positions with an opponent, the negotiation is converted into a joint problem solving exercise. The very process involves both parties in a search for what will meet the needs of both and, hence, in a caring for the interest of the other party as well as one’s self.

Whenever an impasse is reached the negotiator avoids a conflict of wills over positions by attempting to find some independent principle or objective criteria that can be used to determine what is fair. Although there may well be disagreement as to what this criterion should be, this appeal to authority introduces what is fair and avoids dominance.

The skilled negotiator avoids attributing problems to the personality of the other and attempts to turn any personal attacks into attacks on the problem. By focusing on the problem and being insistent on meeting underlying interests, but flexible as to position and soft on the other as person, principled negotiations are conducted in a business like way that proceeds rather independently from whether the other party is a stranger, an enemy or a trusted friend. If one finds that other is using unprincipled tactics one simply points these out. Often, mere pointing out that an unfair tactic is being used neutralizes its advantage. When it does not, one can refuse to proceed unless there is a correction.

There are times when negotiation may not be useful. The other may refuse any principles of fairness, or one may lack the power or resources to achieve a beneficial negotiation. In such circumstances, rather than establishing an inflexible bottom line position, one can examine the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. In fact, the best way to improve one’s negotiating power is to consider the alternatives to negotiation. [The concept of principled negotiation is articulated by Fisher and Ury and the method, together with numerous interesting examples, may be found in their book Getting to Yes]

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