by kwame christian

This is interview was originally published in Forbes on April 9, 2024. To read it on Forbes’ website, click here.

William Ury is an international negotiation expert, best known for co-authoring the world’s best-selling negotiation book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In and co-founding the Harvard University Program on Negotiation (PON). His latest book, POSSIBLE: How We Survive (and Thrive) in an Age of Conflict dives into finding pathways to success in some of the most (seemingly) impossible conflicts of our modern time. Having engaged in some of the most high-stakes conversations a person can have, from coal-mine strikes to civil wars, Ury joined Negotiate Anything to share his expert advice for effectively navigating difficult conversations and building stronger human connections.

The Single Biggest Obstacle to Getting What We Want

If given the opportunity to interview a world-renowned expert on negotiation, most people would more than likely ask about their single best negotiation strategy or tactic. That said, according to Ury, the biggest obstacle to the success of a negotiation is you.

As negotiators, it’s natural to focus our energy on our counterpart, looking for ways to build on momentum and appropriately counter any challenges. With that approach, we often spend less time preparing for our own emotional management and crafting plans for how we will respond when things get tense or hostile.

“It’s not the person on the other side of the table. It’s the person on this side of the table,” Ury explained. “It lies in our very own human, very understandable, very natural tendency to react.”

Going to the Balcony

With that in mind, Ury recommends negotiators prioritize a strategy for managing emotions and regaining perspective. Not only will this help avoid unnecessary tension or conflict, but it also helps ensure that the most important conversational goals are still met. In super high-stakes negotiations, such as conversations with government leaders over political unrest, harnessing this skill can make the difference between life and death.

So, how do we begin this process?

Ury uses the metaphor of “going to the balcony”.

Essentially, imagine yourself in a theater, on a stage. Part of the staging includes a balcony. When you’re on stage, you have a first-hand view and perspective that may also be fairly limited. On the other hand, from the balcony, you have a great view of the entire stage, giving you a better opportunity to make sense of the full picture.

This symbolic perspective should be our goal during difficult conversations. Rather than staying stuck in our own unique perspective and emotional triggers, we need to find ways to zoom out and analyze the situation more broadly.

Ury expanded on this concept, “What I find successful negotiators do is they go to the balcony, then they go back on the stage. They go back [and forth] in between those two. It’s about being a participant and observer so that you can see where there might be possible ways out of the labyrinth.”

The Power Not to React

While emotion management and perspective shifting are incredibly effective in negotiations, they are also extremely difficult to do in moments where tensions are high. Our natural triggers and responses can act quicker (and stronger) than we like at times.

Ury is well-known for having engaged with a particularly high-stakes and extremely intense negotiation with Hugo Chavez, the former President of Venezuela, during a moment of civil unrest in the country.

After making his first recommendation, Chavez became extremely upset and took to yelling in Ury’s face for nearly 30 minutes. In the midst of such an intense and terrifying experience, how did he manage to “return to the balcony”?

He began pinching his own hand (recalling the advice of a mentor and friend).

In doing so, he brought himself back into the present moment, remained alert, and took some time to consider the ultimate goal of the interaction.

With a goal to calm the situation in Venezuela, it occurred to Ury that nothing would be accomplished if he got into an argument with the president. So, the only way to ensure success was to stay present, remain calm and lean into curiosity. Eventually, after much time had passed with no hostile response from Ury, Chavez relaxed, took a step back and once again asked him for his thoughts.

“What I learned then and there, or realized most dramatically, is that the greatest power that we have in negotiation, is the power not to react,” he said.

Practical Tips for Entering the Balcony

So how can we apply this to our everyday difficult conversations?

First, it’s important to remember that everybody’s “balcony”, or grounding technique, will look different. It’s important to hone in on what this looks like for you. Ideally this would be a subtle, non-distracting movement that brings you into the moment and allows you to reset your perspective.

One easy way to do this is through note taking. Acknowledge the amount of information you are processing and ask your counterpart if it’s okay if you pause for a moment to take some notes. Even if you’re only aimlessly scribbling (and not taking substantive notes), the act itself can be a great opportunity to process emotions, reset or even meditate if necessary.

Ury also suggests building these moments into the expectations for the meeting. At the beginning of the conversation, build-in breaks and set ground rules for how all parties will respond if things become tense or hostile.

Finally, after intense emotions have subsided, it can also be helpful to lean into curiosity. Rather than taking comments and actions personally, explore what else could be happening. What may be causing the other person to act that way?

This is another simple way to zoom out and shift perspective.

Preparation and strategy are necessary for effective negotiations, but oftentimes the biggest obstacle to successful conversations isn’t what we think. William Ury’s extensive and incredible career experience highlights the value of internal negotiations, non-reaction, and using empathy to connect on a human level. From boardrooms to picket lines, this approach has helped him bridge gaps and solve problems all over the world.