Getting Past No


As useful as the PRINCE analysis is, it does not always provide the kind of information you need.  It is very good for identifying who your potential allies and opponents will be, and possible leverage points you could use on each of them.  But in the end it is a blunt tool—it is based on the power and its application.


Sometimes you will want to go beyond alliances to create partnerships.  William Ury’s book, Getting Past No:  Negotiating Your Way from Confrontation to Cooperation (1991) provides a way to reframe a relationship from “barriers” to “joint problem-solving.”  He refers to this as “breakthrough negotiation,” in which people sit side by side, facing the problem, to reach a mutually satisfactory solution (p. 7)  The key to breakthrough negotiation is to change the game.  Often in trying to achieve our goals we see any opposition as a barrier to burst through.  Instead, Ury suggests, take a lesson from sailing and take an indirect route—tack into the wind, as it were. 



Before entering into negotiations, you need to prepare.  In a PRINCE analysis, the preparation was essentially reconnaissance—trying to figure out who is where.  In breakthrough negotiations, much of the preparation is imaginative—trying to develop a menu of possibilities along several dimensions:

·        Interests:  Rather than fixing on a position (“By the end of the negotiations, I need X”), focus on you interests.  What are the motivations that lead you to take one position or another—what needs, desires, concerns, fears or aspirations are leading you to seek one solution or another?  You also need to figure out the interests of your potential negotiating partner, because it is through empathy (putting yourself in the shoes of the other) that a breakthrough will occur.

·        Options:  Don’t get stuck with only one way to solve the issue.  Consider a range of options for solving the issue with available resources.  Then consider options which expand the resources available.  Don’t be content to divide up a fixed pie.  Explore ways (even if they seem unlikely) to increase the size of the pie.

·        Standards:  Once the pie is determined, there remains the problem of how to divide it.  There is, of course, the kindergarten strategy of “I want it!” and whoever screams loudest (has most power) gets it.  It is more constructive, however, to find fair standards that both sides can agree to (see John Rawls, 19xx, for a discussion of using the “veil of ignorance” as a decision rule).  Ury suggests preparing for negotiations by coming armed with information on market rates, scientific criteria, costs, technical measures, and precedents (p. 21).

·        Alternatives:  The purpose of negotiation is not to reach an agreement, it is to satisfy your interests.  You need to know your “walkaway alternative” (your BATNA—Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement) (p. 21).  Usually, your BATNA is not all that satisfying (or else you wouldn’t be considering negotiating), but sometimes it will be easier to “boost” your BATNA (strengthen your walkaway alternative) than it will be to reach an agreement.  Be careful not to overestimate the attractiveness of your BATNA (because you may have to live with it later).  Strengthening your BATNA will also strengthen your position in the negotiations you are considering.  You should also try to identify your partner’s BATNA, so you have some idea of the challenge you are about to face in the negotiations.

·        Proposals:  A proposal is “a possible agreement to which you are ready to say yes” (p. 25).  It will have to be better than both your BATNA and your partner’s BATNA.  Given all the work you have already done exploring options and alternatives, you should develop a range of proposals with “What do you aspire to?” at one end and “What could you live with?” at the other, and “What would you be content with?” in the middle.  Try not to freeze these into “positions,” but consider them illustrations of possible solutions along the continuum of acceptability.


Control Your Reaction

Armed with all your options and alternatives, you enter into the negotiation.  Sometimes (more often now, but still not frequently enough) you will find that your partner is also prepared for breakthrough negotiating, and the process might proceed very quickly finding a mutually agreeable solution.  More commonly, your partner will come at you with a demonstration of power and demand that you accede to her/his position.  Control your reaction!  This is the opening gambit, and if you respond with a demonstration of your power you will have let yourself be forced into playing the other person’s game.  Take a deep breath, and “Go to the balcony” (pp, 31-51). 


There are three basic ways that your partner might use a display of power:  Obstruction (“stonewalling,” as Ury calls it), attacking, or deception.  Obstruction can take many forms:  “take it or leave it,” “I can’t do anything, it’s policy,” “I’ve already promised,” or just take the form of continual delay (“I’ll get back to you,” and then don’t follow through).  Attacking is using pressure to make you feel uncomfortable so you give in.  It can be as blatant as a threat (“Do it or else”) or more subtly by attacking your proposal (“You figure it out”), your credibility (“You don’t know much about this, do you?”), or your authority (“Let me talk to someone who can decide!”).  Deception is the most subtle form of attack.  It can take the form of manipulating the data (sometimes, providing false information; often, providing confusing information), pretending to have no authority to decide, or adding new demands at the last minute (Americans consider this an unfair tactic; other cultures sometimes see this as a normal part of negotiating.  See Fang, 1999).


The first step is to recognize that power is being applied against you.  Sometimes it will be blatant enough that you will see through the tactic from the start.  More often, you will find your stomach tightening or your face flushing or feel your heart racing.  However you habitually respond to threat, learn to recognize it and pay attention to it.  Then back away from the instinct to fight or flee—buy time to think.  There are several ways to do this.  First, just pause and say nothing.  This gives you some time to get to the balcony, and gives your partner some time to cool down.  Sometimes that will be enough.  If it isn’t, buy some more time by repeating what you heard or asking your partner to go over it again.  Sometimes it is an advantage to appear to be a little slow on the uptake.  If the other side continues to pressure you and won’t back off, take a break—ask for some coffee, or a restroom break, or even a chance to confer with someone else.  If you can’t get out of the room, try to divert the discussion with a story or a joke.


Whatever you do, don’t make important decisions on the spot.  Try to wait at least overnight (you’d be surprised how many things you can think of once the pressure is off).  If that is not possible, at least get away from the table, make a telephone call, get some fresh air.  Remember, in any negotiation you at least have the power to withhold your agreement—and without that, there is no deal and the other side will be left with their BATNA.


Redirect Their Emotion

Now that you have your emotions under control, the next step is to help your partner do the same.  As long as you are sitting across the table glaring at each other (literally or figuratively), you cannot breakthrough in negotiations.  Since you are trying to change the game from a win-lose contest into a win-win collaboration, you will have to “step to their side.”  No matter how mutually beneficial your proposition may be, the other side won’t be able to consider it until they have calmed down too.  You help them do this by actively listening, acknowledging their points, and building points of agreement.


Active Listening:  Hear them out.  All the way out.  Do not correct their misperception or add your comments, but do encourage them to spit it all out (“Yes, please go on.”  “Then what happened?”).  Having heard them out, you will find that already they are less reactive—they got “it” off their chest.  But don’t stop there.  Paraphrase back what you heard, so they know you heard them.  And give them a chance to correct your paraphrase. 


Acknowledge Their Point:  Then acknowledge their point and acknowledge their feelings.  They have a point (you just repeated it back to them), and their feelings really are their feelings.  Say so.  This is the beginning of building points of agreement.  Offer an apology if one is due—it doesn’t matter whether you were personally responsible or not.  Say you’re sorry if they were wronged.  We can offer sympathy to each other without acknowledging culpability; we owe this to each other as human beings.


Agree Whenever You Can:   This is where you pull them over to your side—it is hard to stay upset with someone who is agreeing with you.  You don’t need to concede anything.  Find real areas of agreement and stress them, preferably using humor (it is even harder to stay upset with someone who makes you smile).  Use the word “yes” as often as possible, even turning an objection (“But don’t you see….”) into an affirmation (“Yes, I see that you have an issue with this, and here is another side to it you might want to consider….”).  Don’t challenge their point of view (“You are being unfair!”), but express the issue as it affects you (“I feel that I’m not getting what I need from this arrangement.”).  This is sometimes referred to as “making ‘I’ statements, not ‘you’ statements.”  The point is that you are not trying to tell them what to think or feel, but you are standing up for yourself and sharing your perspective on the issue.  Finally, where there are real differences, acknowledge them (after you have first acknowledged all the areas of agreement)—with optimism that even those few differences can be worked out.


Move Away from Fixed Positions

Now that you are both sitting side by side and looking at the issue more dispassionately, reframe the discussion away from positions (mine and yours) toward identifying interests, inventing creative options, and discussing fair standards for selecting an option (pp. 76-104).  The easiest way to do this is to focus on “problem-solving questions”:  Why? Why not?  What if?  What would you do?  What makes that fair?  And then wait.  Use the silence that follows your question.  Shigeji, the Japanese poet, once wrote, “I may be silent, but/ I’m thinking./  I may not talk, but/ Don’t mistake me for a wall.”


The problem-solving questions reframe your partner’s position in terms of interests.  But what about their tactics?

  • Go around the stone wall (“Obstruction”):  As a first response, ignore the obstruction.  Continue exploring the options.  If it was a bluff, your partner will follow.  If it was serious, it will be repeated.  Then you can reinterpret it as a goal or a target which can be part of the negotiation.  Or you can test it, either by arranging for some “unavoidable” obstacle to meeting the demand (if, say, it was a rigid deadline to complete some phase of the deal by a certain time, arrange to be called away just before then or for a computer to crash….) or asking questions about the barrier in a way that allows you to introduce a softening of the position (“Yes, let’s agree on this format before lunch; but since that is so close, perhaps we could wait to put it in final language until we finish the afternoon’s discussion.”)
  • Deflect attacks:  Again, a first line is often to simply ignore the attack.  Failing that, if the attack is on you, reframe it as an attack on the problem or as a friendly concern.  If the attack is based on past wrongs, reframe it to focus onfuture remedies.  Reframe a “you vs. me” attack to a “we” statement.  Sometimes this can even be done physically, by shifting from a face-to-face position to a side-by-side position (for example, by pulling a document out and sitting next to your partner while you both examine it).
  • Expose tricks:  It is difficult to confront tricks directly, since that would throw the negotiation back into a win/lose mode.  And if your goal was breakthrough negotiating, even if you win you still lost.  Often it is better to “play dumb like a fox.”  Go slowly and ask clarifying questions (for example, in response to a last-minute demand after agreement is reached, you could ask “Are you suggesting that we reopen the negotiation?”).  Or make a reasonable request (for example, if your partner is claiming that an option is fine with him but not with someone else, you could say “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.  Maybe I should get together with that other person.  Could you help arrange it?”).  Or, if you really can’t get your partner to play fair, turn the trick to your advantage (“Do you really mean that your product is so good it won’t need any maintenance for five years?  Could we put that in the contract?”)


Get Beyond Resistance

You have handled your reactions and helped your partners handle theirs.  You have reframed the negotiation from positions to interests and options.  But it’s not over yet—you still don’t have an agreement.  Sometimes your partner will feel a vague dissatisfaction because the negotiations just aren’t going in the direction they had expected when they started.  Sometimes this is called “NIH syndrome—Not Invented Here.”  Other times there are still unmet interests, perhaps interests that your partner was not even aware of until the negotiations cleared away all the other issues.  Your partner could be afraid of losing face.  Or maybe it is just too much too fast (and so it feels easier to say “no.”)


Build them a “Golden Bridge” (pp. 105-129).  This doesn’t mean figuring out the solution that is best for them and telling them what it is.  It means providing the occasion for them to discover their own solution—one which happens to also meet your needs.  There are several elements to this:

  • Involve the other side:  Negotiation is almost never a matter of simply finding the single best solution (if it were, there would be no need to negotiate; educate, perhaps, or commiserate, but not negotiate).  It is a process of getting both sides to buy in.  This means drawing out your partner’s ideas and building on them.  Encourage their feedback on your ideas (sometimes called “constructive criticism”).  And, faced with resistance, offer them choices (“You’re not sure about this; would you feel more comfortable if we did it this way, that way, or another way?”)
  • Pay attention to unmet interests:  Often, your partner will resist a proposal not because of the option itself but because of concern about other unmet (and often unvoiced) needs.  Don’t dismiss these interests as irrational (they may be, but at this particular moment they are very important and dismissing them with a label will not get you anywhere).  And don’t overlook basic human needs like safety and security and belonging.
  • Help them save face:  Help them back away without backing down:  Show how circumstances have changed, or ask for a third-party recommendation, or rely on some standard of fairness.  Then help your partner “write their victory speech”  (there is a saying in Washington, “There’s no limit to how much you can accomplish if you are willing to allow someone else to take the credit”).
  • Go slow to go fast:  Even if everything is given to them on a platter, people generally still need some time to get used to the idea.  Take it a step at a time, break a big decision into a bunch of smaller ones, and don’t ask for a final commitment until it really is the end.  And when it is the end, take the time to do it right.  Encourage your partner to consult with the other stakeholders, and before they go off take a moment to summarize for each other what you have agreed to (clarity know can save major grief later). 


Get Beyond Power

Sometimes building a golden bridge isn’t enough.  Your partners just can’t bring themselves to sign on to the proposal that they have helped create.  There could be any number of reasons for this—their own stakeholders are not on board, or they just can’t get the knack of thinking win-win instead of win-lose, or they simply think they have the power to dominate you.    After having come all this way, you will feel frustrated and be tempted to use your power to attack them (in which case, you will lose and they will have won).  At this point, you will have to use your power, but “use power to bring them to their senses, not to their knees” (p. 133).  Ury calls this “Using power to educate” (pp. 130-156).  Don’t try to force your position on them, but demonstrate to them that they have miscalculated the best way to achieve their interests:

  • Let them know the consequences of failing to reach an agreement:  Ask reality-testing questions, like “What do you think will happen if we don’t agree?” or “What do you think I will do?”  For that matter, probe their BATNA with “What will you do?” (sometimes it doesn’t look so good when it is expressed in plain air).
  • Warn, don’t threaten:  The idea here is to use your power to make it more likely that they will say yes, without raising their resistance and making it more likely they will say no (that’s the problem with power—for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction).  The trick is to make the consequences apparent but not threatening.  State them as dispassionately as possible, using passive language (“this will happen” rather than “this is what I will do”).
  • Show them your BATNA:  Let your partner see that you are prepared—in fact, preparing—to act on your alternative for no agreement.  Again, not as a threat but as a simple fact.  Use as little power as possible, exhaust all your other options, demonstrate restraint.  But also demonstrate resolve.  And above all use only legitimate means.
  • Neutralize their attacks:  Don’t counterattack; neutralize their attack.  Find ways to deflect rather try to absorb an attack straight on.  If they threaten to go over your head, say “Please feel free to discuss this with my boss.  I have kept her fully informed and I expect she would give you a similar response.”
  • Use “third force” leverage your power:  Bring in your coalitions, use them to stop the attacks and bring your partner back to the negotiations.
  • Keep sharpening their choice:  Keep reminding them that the choice is between their BATNA and the golden bridge you constructed together, and sharpen the contrast between that choice.  Remind that that they have a way out, that there is an alternative to nothing at all.  Let them choose, offering to let them shape some of the final details.  And even if it is clear that you can win, still negotiate the final proposal.  “An imposed outcome is an unstable one” (p. 150). 
  • Forge a lasting agreement:  The goal is mutual satisfaction, not victory.  Reaffirm your relationship.  Be generous.  But also design the deal to minimize your risks and build in dispute resolution procedures.


Ury’s technique for “getting past no” does not lend itself to a mathematical equation.  But it does lend itself to a checklist of questions, some to be answered in preparation, some to be pursued in the process of negotiating, and some be reviewed in the end game.  In the beginning you will probably want to use the checklist in a very deliberate way; with practice, it will become second nature and you will probably only refer to the checklist when you are stumped.





© 1996 A.J.Filipovitch
Revised 21 September 2005