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One City

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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