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“Getting To Yes” – Unintentionally Mindful?

By Stillman Brown

I had a fight with a close friend last week, one of those wrenching, existential blowouts where you argue each other in to a kind of hysteria of extreme positions and begin asking yourself, “who is this person? When did they get so mean?”  It was hurtful and left me feeling drained. Worse, however, was that after I’d had a chance to check in with my body, do some sitting meditation and calm down, I realized: it was utterly unproductive. It was based on mutual projections, misunderstanding, and misdirected energy, and it need never have happened. What mattered most in the relationship was still there: mutual respect, affection, and sharing. Everything else was just noise.
Serendipitously, a friend lent me a copy of “Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” by Roger Fisher and William Ury. It’s a classic in the field of negotiation and much of it’s advice sounded oddly similar to what we talk about in Dharma gatherings. For instance: 


People get angry, depressed, fearful, hostile, frustrated, and offended. They have egos that are easily threatened. They see the world from their own personal vantage point, and they frequently confuse their perceptions with reality. Routinely, they fail to interpret what you say in the way you intend and do not mean what you understand them to say. Misunderstanding can reinforce prejudice and lead to reactions that produce counterreactions in a vicious circle; rational exploration of possible solutions becomes impossible and a negotiation fails. The purpose of the game becomes scoring points, confirming negative impressions, and apportioning blame at the expense of the substantive interests of both parties. (19)


Getting to Yes is meant to be useful in any negotiation, from the interpersonal (what movie to see with your spouse) to the international (the authors cite U.S. and Russian Cold War era talks), and the language above is broad enough to be applied to any situation. And perhaps that’s the point – Fisher and Ury are pointing to a universal dynamic in human behavior and relationships that was also described by Siddh?rtha Gautama over 2000 years ago. 

Perhaps that’s the thing that made Getting to Yes so revolutionary in the then-undeveloped study of business and power negotiations: it asked people to consider humanness instead of positions, create mutually beneficial solutions instead of crushing or folding to the other side. It was about teaching people that negotiation is a process (not a contest) that should be conducted with principles and ethics. 
We’re always negotiating. At work, with our friends and family, with children and with ourselves. Getting to Yes is an oldie but a goodie – simple and direct and full of a surprising humanity. Heck, it’s positively Buddhist, and I can’t help wondering how the fight I had last week would have gone differently if I’d taken a moment to remember that, no matter what’s being negotiated, respect, communication, and an agreed-upon set of rules can save the day. 
Maybe next time.
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Patrick Groneman

posted November 20, 2009 at 10:23 am

The subtitle of the book “Negotiating Agreement without Giving in” is super fabulous. Does the book give specific structures to use when negotiating or is the emphasis more on cultivating humanity?

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Stillman Brown

posted November 20, 2009 at 10:35 am

Good question: the book is very, very detailed about how to bring more humanity to specific situations where the other negotiator is playing hardball, being intransigent, or simply not on the same page. It runs through particular scenarios, some of which are too simple for my taste, but it’s interesting to read and think about how they apply in my own life.
If you have a spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend or a Russian counterpart you need to negotiate with (and we all do), give it a read.

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posted November 20, 2009 at 11:20 am

Thanks Stills. I will check this out.

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Jerry Kolber

posted November 20, 2009 at 12:28 pm

Thanks Stillman, sounds like a cool book. Do you have to make the person you are negotiating with read it before you negotiate, or is it non-binary? Is there a copy available in Russian? I assume it would be called “Getting to Da” .

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Jon Rubinstein

posted November 20, 2009 at 3:14 pm

Sounds amazing. I have a copy someone gave me and have never read it because I had a preconceived notion that it was another business book about how to convince people to do things they don’t want to do. Obviously I was mistaken! Reading that excerpt above makes it sound more like a book by Thich Nhat Hanh than a business author. Thanks!

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posted November 20, 2009 at 9:29 pm

Sometimes those books that feel embarassing to pick up are the best. I found a book on the shelf at work called “Centering and the Art of Intimacy Handbook” that was really helpful in this same regard you describe. Its one pointer that I have used over and over is, when you find yourself caught up in an argument, is to state your feelings in way “that can’t be argued with.” It’s a challenge to get your feelings in order enough to state them truthfully and on a basic level. It was also a reassuring book in that it reminds you that if you’re very close, you’re going to have terrible, frustrating arguments from time to time, because it’s part of intimacy.

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posted November 23, 2009 at 12:29 pm

Def check it out folks! It’s helpful and a quick read.
Jer, the book assumes your opponent will not be engaging in “principled negotiation,” although the tone will probably change from intimate partner to Russian counterpart in ICBM talks. Or not.

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