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To Negotiate Better, Start with Yourself

CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

When was the last time you prepared for a negotiation? Maybe it was working out how to get a project done with a coworker. Maybe it was negotiating a big purchase, possibly something more substantial in global trade or international relations. Chances are, if you did prepare, you may well have spent more time and energy thinking about the opposing party than you did about yourself. Today’s guest speaks from a long and storied career in high stakes negotiations, and he says too often, our biggest obstacle is ourselves.

William Ury is a cofounder of the Harvard program on negotiation. He co-wrote the influential 1981 book, Getting to Yes. He has played a role in peace negotiations, mediated talks between estranged business partners, and trained countless executives and managers on best practices. Through all that, he has learned that gaining perspective on yourself is an underutilized and powerful tool, especially now in a world that seems to be in more polarizing conflict than ever.

His latest book is Possible: How We Survive and Thrive in an Age of Conflict. William, great to have you on the show.

WILLIAM URY: Oh, it’s a great pleasure, Curt.

CURT NICKISCH: I want to start by asking how you think about conflict, because I think so many of us still think of it as a negative, scary thing.

WILLIAM URY: Yes. And I used to think the same way myself, Curt, but I was trained originally as an anthropologist before I went into the field of negotiation. And as an anthropologist, I came to appreciate that conflict is actually essential to change, to growth, to evolution, to how we as individuals and organizations develop.

And the best decisions often result from surfacing different points of view, getting everyone’s ideas on the table, and then looking for a solution that actually incorporates the different perspectives. It’s actually at the heart of a vibrant democracy, healthy conflict is. It’s at the heart of a healthy marriage. It’s at the heart of healthy business in the form of business competition. It really is necessary.

So in that sense, oddly enough, even though we live in this age of increasing conflict, in a funny sense, I would say we actually need more conflict, not less, but more of the healthy variety. And the key choice that we face is not about whether to get rid of conflict or not, it’s how do we handle it? Do we handle it destructively through fights, through lawsuits, through boardroom battles, through labor strikes? Or do we handle it constructively through creative, constructive negotiation?

CURT NICKISCH: As you just mentioned now and you write about in your new book, Possible, the world seems more conflicted than ever, perhaps because we all have so much more access to every other person in the world who thinks differently than us or who wants the same resources as us. In some ways, a digitally connected world has brought our differences into stronger relief. Has conflict gotten harder in your experience?

WILLIAM URY: I believe so. The other thing that I think that’s happening in the world of business and in society generally is that the form of decision-making has shifted over the last 30 or 40 years from more top down, the person on the top gives you orders and the people on the bottom follow the orders, to more horizontal decision making where everyone gets involved. And what that means is there’s a lot more negotiation, there’s a lot more conflict, and we need to figure that out. That’s why I think negotiation may be one of the very top core competencies for any leader these days.

CURT NICKISCH: And it sounds like because of the changing power structure of these conflicts today, it sounds like negotiation has to change too?

WILLIAM URY: It’s true. And as you mentioned at the top, the thing that I’ve learned, perhaps the lesson that probably learned most strikingly in the years since writing Getting to Yes, is that actually the biggest obstacle to getting what I want in a negotiation is not what I think it is. It’s not the difficult person or organization on the other side of the table. It’s the person on this side of the table, it’s me. It’s our own natural, very understandable, very human tendency to react, which is to act without thinking. As the old saying goes, “When you’re angry, you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” You will send the best email you will ever regret. And the ability to suspend our normal reaction is critical if we’re going to be able to advance our interests in a negotiation.

CURT NICKISCH: What is it about not understanding themselves that people get wrong now as they prepare for negotiation or encounter conflict?

WILLIAM URY: Yeah, I think the biggest thing is… I mean, what I see as the foundation of successful negotiation nowadays is the ability to step back from the situation for a moment. It’s almost as if you’re negotiating on a stage. You’re on the stage, the other players are on the stage, and so on. Your mind goes to a mental and emotional balcony, overlooking the stage. A place of calm, a place of perspective, a place where you can keep your eyes on the prize and see the bigger picture. And what I find these days is the way that we’re communicating with texts and email, just everything coming in all the time at us, it makes us hyperreactive. And social media tends to encourage that. And negotiation is-

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, rewards it.

WILLIAM URY: What we need these days is that ability to… That balcony time, it’s that time to prepare that you were mentioning earlier. What I find so often in negotiations, particularly in conflicts and disputes, is people act in ways that go exactly contrary to their own interests.

Let me give you an example. A number of years ago, I was brought in to help a business leader in Brazil who had founded with his father, Brazil’s most successful retailers, a really large company, 150,000 employees. He was in a huge battle with the other large shareholder over control of the company. And on the surface, it looks like it was all on the external factors, like the numbers like, “Okay, how much stock are we going to get?” All those things. But in the end, it turned out to be internal.

When I met with my client, whose name was Abilio, and became a good friend, I asked him, “Abilio, I don’t know if I can help you, but tell me what is it exactly that you want out of this negotiation?” And he, like any good business leader, had his list ready. He wanted a large sum of stock. He wanted the elimination of the three or non-compete clause. He wanted the company headquarters, he wanted the company sports team. He had a list of about six things. Those were his positions, the things he said he wanted.

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Then I said, “Abilio, tell me something. You’re a man who seems to have everything. What do you really want?” And he paused for a moment. And finally in a reflective tone, he said, “You know what I want? I want liberdade.” Which in Portuguese means, “I want my freedom.” And the way he said freedom, I understood. That was behind the position, the things that he said he wanted. What did he really want most of all was freedom. It’s that underlying need, that underlying driver that was driving him.

And that actually had particular resonance for him because a number of years earlier, he’d been kidnapped actually as he’d been leaving his apartment by a group of urban political gorilla gang and held in a coffin for a week not knowing if he was going to survive. So freedom really meant something to him.

So I said to him, “Well, what would you do with your freedom? What does actually freedom actually mean to you?” And he said in this case, he said, “Well, freedom actually means time to spend time with my family, which is the most important thing in my life. And freedom to make the deals, the business deals that I love to make.”

Once we got to the bottom of what he really wanted, which is what you do, then actually it turned out to be much easier to deal with the dispute. But what I realized then and there was that the biggest obstacle for him as it is for all of us is ourselves, is our tendency to get reactive. And when we’re reactive, we don’t actually focus. We don’t really drill down to what we really want out of that negotiation. And unless you can do that, then you’re not going to get it.

CURT NICKISCH: I was thinking a lot about one phrase that I’ve heard recently as I was reading your book, and that’s “failure of imagination.” That’s something that people often used to describe a situation that’s bad and people didn’t realize how much worse it could get and didn’t prepare for it. You writing about Possible also made me think about failures of imagination – about how things could be or how good things could be if we get out of sort of seeing the situation in one way. Can you talk a little bit more about your philosophy of possibility?

WILLIAM URY: Yeah. I’ve now spent about 45 years wandering the world as a negotiator. And people often ask me, “So after all this, William, are you an optimist or are you a pessimist?” And what I now like to say is actually I’m a possibilist. In other words, I believe in human possibility. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve seen people transform conflicts, whether it’s in the business sector or in the political sector, or for that matter at home; taking conflicts that are seemingly impossible and turn them around. Thanks to persistent, patient, creative, constructive negotiation where people had the imagination, as you mentioned, to imagine new possibilities, new ways of being with each other. It didn’t mean incidentally that the conflict necessarily ended, but the war did. The destructive fighting turned into constructive negotiation, dialogue, democracy, and so on.

CURT NICKISCH: So let’s talk about how to get started on this path of possibility for yourself in a conflict or negotiation, maybe with a concrete example from the business world that might help people picture this. Let’s say you’re a company that’s trying to acquire another firm. What can you do to put yourself “on the balcony” as you put it?

WILLIAM URY: Well, what I’ve often found actually interestingly in talking with business leaders and managers is that I ask them, I say, “Think about your most challenging negotiations. If there are two kinds of negotiations, the external negotiations with people, other organizations – like a merger negotiation and the internal negotiations with people on your own team, on your own side, within your own organization, which personally do you find more problematic?” And interestingly, the overwhelming majority of hands go up for the internal negotiations.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, the people you’re supposed to agree with, right?

WILLIAM URY: Exactly, the people who you’re supposed to be all aligned with. And so I would say that one really important part of preparation of time on the balcony and preparing for that merger is to make sure that you have those internal talks, which in fact are internal negotiations: making sure you have alignment, making sure that people speak up now and raise your differences rather than that come up later on in the midst of the merger negotiations or in the midst of the merger and end up unraveling things in ways that you hadn’t imagined.

CURT NICKISCH: Are there favorite questions you like people to ask themselves or exercises you can do to sort of pull yourself back, step back and get that perspective on yourself and the situation?

WILLIAM URY: I like to ask, I call it the five why exercise, which is… Well, I’ll give you an example. I was talking with a sales chief for large software company. And he was saying to me, “What I really have a problem with is saying no to customers who keep on wanting these very customized solutions. And then that costs us a lot of money and time. And I just have trouble saying no because it’s the customer.”

And so I asked him, “So well, tell me then why do you want to say no?” And he said, “Well, it’s revenues. We have to maintain our revenues.” So I said, “Yeah, okay, I got that, but why do you want to have revenues?” And he said, “Well, I want to make a profit. Of course, we have to make a profit.” So I say, “Well, why do you want to make the profit?” And then he said, “Well, so that we can survive as a company.” “Well, why do you want to survive as a company?” “Well, so we can all have jobs.” “Why do you want to all have jobs?”

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“So I can put food on my family table,” he said to me a kind of in an irate voice. But drilling down, I said, “Well, the next time you’re in front of a customer, think about it this way. You’re not just protecting revenue, you’re putting food on your family’s table. And that will give you the strength and the confidence to be able to say no and keep to that no.”

So in other words, drilling down to what we really want. It’s almost like an iceberg. The positions are the part of the iceberg that’s above the water. What’s underneath the water? Drill down to those basic human needs of freedom or putting food on your family’s table. Those are the drivers. And when you’re preparing for that, really think those through. Make sure you know what those are, not just for you but for the other people in the organization. Because in any negotiation, there’s not just the one table of you negotiating the merger with the other company. There’s an internal table.

CURT NICKISCH: At what point is it useful to think about what the other person or your opponent or negotiating partner what they want or need? How do you do that in a way that’s not reacting to them or projecting, but rather about exploring possibilities?

WILLIAM URY: Well, I think, again, when you’re preparing, once you’ve really drilled down and found out what your interests are, it’s equally important then to drill down and ask the same questions about the other side. Because negotiation is an exercise in influence. If you’re trying to influence the other side, if you’re trying to change their mind, you need to know where their mind is. You need to know what they care about. That turns out to be critical. So there’s a kind of two-step here, which is, listen to yourself first, really figure out what you want, and then do the exact same thing for the other side.

CURT NICKISCH: You also say it’s important to slow down. When do you do that?

WILLIAM URY: One of the most useful models I go by in negotiation is, if you want to go fast, go slow. Because in this life, in the world, we’re trying to go very, very fast. But when it comes to negotiation, human minds don’t change instantly. It’s a little bit like companies go in, they see a market opportunity, they’re saying, “Okay, well let’s build a plant. Let’s rush in there.”

And they’re in such a rush that they don’t consult the local community and they don’t consult who’s not at the table, who’s being involved by this. And then they find to their surprise that the local community starts to organize and they take it to court or they protest or whatever. And then it turns out that the plant takes longer to build in the long run. So the ability to kind of slow down to be able to move fast turns out to be key.

CURT NICKISCH: What have you seen work well in helping you get your negotiating partner, your opponent,  to step to the balcony themselves and get away from their positions and think more about their interests and what they really want?

WILLIAM URY: The best way I know to help the others go to the balcony, because that’s also important, is to listen. We think of negotiation as talking. We often describe negotiation as talks, but actually in my experience, negotiation is actually more about listening. And the most successful negotiators I know listen far more than they talk. Because when we’d listen to the other side, when we ask them good questions, open-ended questions, empathetic questions to try and understand what’s going on, what are we doing? We’re signaling respect. We’re seeing them, we’re hearing them.

And if they’re kind of in an anxious mode, I know people are in a negotiation, they’re anxious, they’re fearful, they’re angry, they’re distrustful – they start to relax because they feel heard. And so listening is the most underrated instrument of influence that we have. And the kind of listening I’m talking about is not the normal kind of listening where we’re listening within our shoes, we’re listening to them. We’re hearing their words and we’re saying, “I agree with that. I don’t agree with that.”

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. “And I’m ready to make a point about that.”

WILLIAM URY: Yeah, exactly.

CURT NICKISCH: “I’m ready to argue that.”

WILLIAM URY: We’re listening in order to respond or to react. Now I’m talking about the kind of listening where the spotlight moves from where you are to where they are. We’re listening not from within our perspective. We’re listening from within their perspective. We’re putting ourselves in their shoes. We’re trying to understand what is it that really drives them? What is it that they’re really concerned about? What are they worried about? And when we can do that, we find that we’re much better able to both establish a connection with them, but then we’re able to influence them because we know exactly what they’re concerned about.

CURT NICKISCH: You use the analogy of building a bridge, building a golden bridge for a successful negotiation in your book. Can you describe that in just how we should think about that?

WILLIAM URY: The problem in negotiation is that particularly when things get tough, what we tend to do is we tend to take a position and we dig into it. And then each side starts to push the other to change their position. And of course, the more you push, what does the other side normally do? They push back, right?

What I find successful negotiators doing is the exact opposite of pushing, which is they attract. It’s almost as if your mind is in one place, right? Their mind may be in a completely different place. It’s not easy for them to move to where you want them to move. It’s almost like there’s a giant chasm or a canyon in between where you are and where they are. And that canyon is filled with dissatisfaction, unmet needs, distrust.

Our job as a negotiator, and this is not easy, is to leave for a moment where our thinking is, move over to where they are and start the conversation from where they are, how they see the situation, and then proceed to build them a bridge over that canyon, over that chasm of dissatisfaction. In other words, make it as easy as possible for them to move in the direction you want them to move.

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Oftentimes in a difficult negotiation, instinctively, we’re trying to make it harder for them. Actually, our job is to make it easier for them, easier for them to make the decision we’d like them to make. That’s the art of building them a golden bridge.

CURT NICKISCH: There are a few things in the book that you write about that were new to me or probably not well-known techniques and topics, and I just want to ask you about a few of those. How does the idea of hosting apply in a business context?

WILLIAM URY: Yeah, I would say I realize there’s something that we as human beings all know how to do. We all know how to host someone who’s a guest. We host someone, we welcome them. We make them feel at ease. The simplest thing we can do is host the parties, host the conflict, talk with them. Take one of the parties or both of them aside and say, “Hey, let me listen to you. What’s going on here?” Help them relax, help them go to the balcony, as it were.

Just that simple thing of welcoming them, welcoming the conflict rather than avoiding it and just tiptoeing around it, witnessing the conflict, that alone creates an environment which actually is conducive then to constructive problem solving. You can create the conditions, you can bring people together. Any one of us as a manager, as a leader, we’re constantly, if you think about it, informally mediating. And a lot of mediating, it means welcoming, turning towards the conflict rather than avoiding it and hoping it’s going to go away.

CURT NICKISCH: You coined the term BATNA in that book Getting to Yes. And that’s really become the standard in negotiations of all kinds today. Have your views on that changed at all over the course of your career?

WILLIAM URY: Yeah. BATNA, which Roger Fisher and I coined back in Getting to Yes stands for best alternative to a negotiated agreement. It’s an acronym. It’s what’s your best course of action for satisfying your interests. If for some reason you’re not able to reach agreement, it’s your plan B. That’s a critical question that you ask yourself, again, when you’re on the balcony, when you’re preparing.

And a lot of people resist thinking about their BATNA because they think of it as negative thinking, and they don’t want to think about it as negative thinking, but it’s actually alternative positive thinking. It’s like, “Okay, alternatively, positively, what am I going to do?” Go back to my friend Abilio. When I asked him, when he said his key objective, his key interest was freedom, I asked him the question, which was the BATNA question of, “Who can give you that freedom? Is it only the other side by settling this deal? In other words, are you their hostage? Or can you yourself give yourself freedom?” He said freedom to spend time with his family. I said, “What’s stopping you from spending time with your family right now? What’s stopping you from making the deals you want right now?”

And interesting enough, psychologically, by realizing that he himself could meet his underlying needs, he began to relax more, and that actually allowed us to proceed and make the negotiation successful. Paradoxically, thinking through your BATNA, in my experience over the last years, actually heightens the possibility of reaching a good agreement.

CURT NICKISCH: Coming back to this core idea of possibility here, it’s interesting because early in the book, you talk about your grandfather who founded a business because he saw opportunities about what was possible, which led to innovations essentially. And that got me and our producer Mary to thinking about how in a lot of ways many business problems are actually about conflict. But new technologies, innovations, new businesses are born not always from going around that or avoiding those conflicts, but actually pushing through that conflict. If you use the terminology of today, that’s pain points, right? What can you tell us about how being a good negotiator can also just help you in business generally?

WILLIAM URY: When I ask people, “How much of your time do you actually spend negotiating, in other words, thinking about everyone that you negotiate with?” and they say, “Well, gosh, I negotiate with my coworkers, my board, my colleagues, my employees, the banks, suppliers, customers.”

And then I ask them, “How much of your time do you think that is?” And what’s amazing is people start to think, “Wow, that’s 25% of my time. That’s 50% of my time. That’s 75% of my time. If I had negotiating with myself, it’s 100% of my time.” And we negotiate far more than we think we negotiate in that broader sense of the term, of trying to back and forth communication, trying to resolve a conflict or an issue.

And so I would say this is the core competence that we need to hone, that we actually all have this natural ability. We just need to hone it, to learn it, to practice it. And we have chances to practice every day, and that’s how we get better and better at it. So through continuous improvement, that’s how we become champion negotiators. And we’re going to need that in today’s world because there’s more and more conflict. Conflict is a growth industry. And negotiation is core to you having to be able to achieve what you want to achieve in life and in business.

CURT NICKISCH: William Ury, this has been a real pleasure to get to talk to you and hear your latest thinking on negotiation. Thanks so much for coming on the show to talk about your work and insights.

WILLIAM URY: It’s a great pleasure, Curt.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s William Ury, negotiation expert and author of the new book Possible: How We Survive and Thrive in An Age of Conflict.

And we have nearly 1,000 episodes plus more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Thanks to our team, Senior Producer Mary Dooe, Associate Producer Hannah Bates, Audio Product Manager Ian Fox, and Senior Production Specialist Rob Eckhardt. Thank you for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Curt Nickisch.

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