I’m William Ury, negotiation specialist, co-founder of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation, co-author of Getting to Yes, the world’s bestselling book on negotiation, and author of Getting to Yes with Yourself, now on sale.
I have worked as a negotiation adviser and mediator in conflicts in the Middle East, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union, Indonesia, Yugoslavia, and Venezuela among other countries.
Today, I’m here to answer any of your questions on negotiation, both with yourself and others. Let’s chat! AMA.
UPDATE: Thank you for all of your wonderful questions this afternoon. It’s been a pleasure talking to you all about negotiation. While I have to sign off, we can continue this conversation anytime on Twitter: @WilliamUryGTY
1.When is it appropriate to “negotiate” without compromise? How do you negotiate when you are essentially giving a “best and final” without making the other company/person feel pressured in to your deal?
- Another great question. I find the best way is to begin by exploring the other side’s interests and needs and educating them about yours. Then you can discuss independent standards, objective criteria such as market value. Finally, you can make your final offer framed in terms of addressing their interests — and yours — and based on independent standards of fairness and explaining calmly and firmly and transparently that that is the best you can do.
2. William! It’s great you took the time to be here, thanks! I watched you Ted’s Talk today. Great job. How do you overcome your fear of failure or rejection? Is there a time when you were learning to overcome your fears that you can think back to and say, “YEP, that’s what fixed it, I’m no longer afraid of being rejected or of failing”.
- It’s not easy Patrick. I think everyone has that fear. It’s a continual practice. What I like to do is to “go to the balcony” in other words imagine myself on a stage where the negotiation is taking place and let my mind go to a mental or emotional balcony, a place of perspective and calm and clarity. From that balcony, I can observe my own fear of failure and rejection and accept it and defuse it. Everyone has their favorite way of going to the balcony — a time out essentially — but it could be as simple as taking a quiet minute to yourself.
3. Hey William! I just finished reading your book Getting to Yes with yourself and others. Great book. I learned a lot from it! Thank you for writing it! In the book you tell successful stories how you negotiated and got to an agreement with the other side. What I’m curious about is, in your professional life, did you get into an important argument and it didn’t workout at all? Would love to hear that story.
- Thanks Suley, I’m glad you liked them. Yes, I have been unsuccessful – on many occasions. One I remember with regret was a discussion I helped facilitate in 1997 between the national security adviser of Boris Yeltsin and the president of Chechnya. If that negotiation had been successful, perhaps the current tragic war in Chechnya might have been averted. There were many reasons why the negotiation failed, including the inability of the parties to control their own constituencies, but the one that struck me most was the failure of the larger international community – and here I must count my colleagues and myself – to give the proper amount of attention and assistance at a moment when, in my opinion, war could quite possibly have been prevented.
- I can think of several examples in which I was involved and in which no agreement was reached. I specialize in lost causes around the world. As some examples, I think of an attempt to mediate an agreement between the Ethiopian government and the Eritrean rebels, which at first was unsuccessful; and a similar effort to negotiate an agreement between the Sudanese government and the Sudanese rebels. One thing I found, however, is that in many cases where negotiations are at first not successful, patience and persistence pay off, and success comes sometimes many years later.
- I have negotiated poorly at times. And I have negotiated well. But I’ve always try to learn from my mistakes. It’s this attitude that a negotiator needs more than anything. A mistake is only temporary; the failure to learn is permanent.
4. Hi William. When you can’t be certain of how much leverage you have in a negotiation – e.g. you’re not sure how much value (or liability) the other party sees in something, what can you do to quantify that? How do you avoid putting your cards on the table in doing so?
- Best is to spend a lot of time upfront exploring, first preparing by yourself putting yourself in the other side’s shoes and learning as much as you can about their interests and needs. Then in conversation with them, you might begin by asking questions like, “I’m trying to address your needs here. Help me understand what those needs are.” That process should give you a better sense of how much value or liability they see.
5. Hi William! What do you believe are the 3 most important leadership qualities for someone who wants to tackle today’s most intractable global problems?
- These are good questions! I’d start with centeredness — the ability to go to the balcony. Then empathy — for yourself and others. And finally creativity — being open to find innovative solutions.
- First thing is to realize that difficult people trigger us, provoke us to react in ways that are not in our interests. So we need to go to the balcony, a place of mental perspective, where we can keep our eyes on what is most important. From the balcony, you can recognize difficult tricks or tactics the other side might use so that you can neutralize their effect on you. This is such an important topic I felt drawn to write a whole book on it called Getting Past No: Dealing with Difficult People. You can also find more info about it on my website www.williamury.com.
–Thank you very much. I’ll try to get this book. I’m a lawyer and I act mostly in family cases. Sometimes, specially when there are children involved and when one of the parents still hurt with the process of separation, is very difficult to negotiate any kind of custody agreement that has true effectiveness, that is respected by the two parties.. Thank you again
–It’s tricky to negotiate when emotions are still raw, as in the family cases you work on. Sometimes a little time and perspective, if both parties can access that for themselves, does wonders. Thank you for the work you do.
7. If you had a year off, what would you want to do?
- I would want to walk the Abraham Path in full in the Middle East. It is a long-distance walking trail that loosely retraces the ancient journey of Abraham 4,000 years ago. Abraham symbolizes hospitality — kindness toward strangers. Inspired by other long distance paths like the Appalachian Trail and the Camino de Compostela, I had the idea for the Path about ten years ago and now it’s an emerging reality. Check it out at www.abrahampath.org. It was named the number one best new walking trail by National Geographic Traveler. It connects people and cultures and inspires hope at a time of real despair in the world.
8. How should states negotiate with each other to tackle climate change? Everyone would be better off if we could slow down or stop climate change, yet it’s in each individual’s or state’s interest to let everyone else shoulder the costs of tackling climate change (the free-rider problem). How should negotiations be structured so as to avoid or lessen the bargaining problems that prevent us from reaching a mutually satisfying solution on climate change?
- Great question. We have to find a way to change the game from a free rider dilemma to a race to contribute the most. In negotiation, the way to change the game is to reframe. Whoever contributes the most will likely be the one who wins out economically by being most advanced in solar, wind, and other renewable technologies.
- I am convinced that to head off catastrophic climate disruption in time, incremental partial measures will not suffice. We will need “game-changers” and I am persuaded that the development of a global energy internet could be just such a game-changer. For too long, we have been stuck in arguing about the problem — whether it exists and who is responsible for fixing it. An energy internet changes the game by changing the frame: from a focus on the problem to a focus on the solution, and from a seemingly impossible crisis to a single integrated construction project.
- It is a potential judo move. Instead of taking on the resistance to work on climate frontally, it sidesteps the resistance and moves straight to a solution that has enormous potential benefit for all — economic, political, environmental, and health. And, in the process, it makes possible a solution to the climate crisis.
- To quote the economist Kenneth Boulding, what exists is possible. The energy internet already exists in bits and pieces and now the Chinese are giving it real weight. Now is the time to take it global.
- For more see www.climateparl.net.
–Love this William. This is where technology & innovation can help with that reframe, so that we can sidestep the resistance you mentioned, by providing cleaner energy alternatives that are also economically viable.
8. Dear Dr. Ury, it is a pleasure to be able to ask you this questions directly. What is your opinion on “NO” being said straight? Can the word “NO” appear in negotiations even if it is a “Positive NO”? While it’s being considered the most powerful fightstarter it is usually hidden behind wording diverted to positive. Shall we use it or make all possible efforts to hide it for purpose of the best outcome of negotiations?
- No is the most powerful word in the language but because it is the most powerful, it is the also the most destructive, but if we can wield it right and make it positive, it can transform our negotiations and our lives. The goal is not just to get to yes, but to get to the right yes and that’s why no is important. Sometimes, No can be said straight. What counts is the tone and context — is it said calmly and with respect or not?
9. Thank you, many professionals say that it is a prohibited word and I had the feeling that not using NO in a straight way at al,l makes our statements and attitude less credible for our partners. I come from Poland and the specificity of the language here is that many thoughts are said by negation instead of confirmation. Did you experience this while negotiating in Eastern Europe or post Soviet countries?
- Interesting insight. Using No is culturally influenced. There are other countries as in East Asia where a straight No is rarely if ever used because it is experienced as too confrontational. No can have the benefit of clarity as you say as in Nyet!
–I was born and raised in Asia, and it’s often challenging to know exactly what the other party really thinks, even though they’ve formulated a firm inner no. I still get it wrong sometimes! This is where context i.e. who is saying things, and why, plays an important role in helping to suss out the undercurrents of the negotiation.
10. Hi William Ury. Great to have you here. Thank you. Here is a question from my side: when it comes to our mindset, from your point oft view, which main aspects or which thoughts might block us (the most) from getting what we really want?
- It’s a pleasure. Maybe the main mindset that gets in our way is the win-lose mindset, seeing the situation as one where the only way one side can win is by making the other lose. That’s fine in sports. But negotiations in my experience usually entail relationships. It’s like asking “Who’s winning your marriage?” If you ask that question, your marriage is in difficulty.
11. How much negotiating did it take to convince you, a master of esoteric if very necessary skills, to do a reddit AMA? And, did you win those negotiations (like, get some ice cream or something really good like that?)
- I wish!
I’m still learning. And my favorite ice cream is mint chip!
12. Hi William! Excited that you’re doing this AMA. Sometimes American politics feel so intractable, with each side trying to one-up the other with tactics like delayed votes and filibusters. What do you think is the first step in getting back to a political system that values negotiation and compromise for the greater good?
- This is a tough one. I have spent time working with Dems and Reps — and it’s not easy. Perhaps the first step lies with we, the people. Instead of blaming the politicians, which is natural and tempting, we can start making our voices heard for principled negotiation in politics. One idea is to have an index of political leaders evaluating them on their negotiation skills for the greater good.
–That’s a great idea. I wonder if anything like that exists! I also read an article in the NY Times recently about the abortion debate, and how both sides are actually much closer to the center and less “all or nothing” than we assume. That was really helpful and enlightening to read, and I think research showing the prevalence of shared views is a great place to start negotiations and bipartisanship as well.
–Oooh, I like that idea of an index, and of making our voices heard. Voter turnout and general public belief in the effectiveness of government has waned so much, even though we are directly affected by their policies every day. I do what I can to raise & encourage civic consciousness with the articles I write.
13. Do you laugh inside or outside when people try to ask you to meet them in the middle?
- Let’s say inside. I like to look for creative optimal solutions that are better than a solution just in the middle.
14. William – in your global experience, which cultures or countries are more predisposed to be able to get to either an inner or an outer yes? I know this is a sweeping question…but am curious about whether you’ve found it easier to rally constituencies in some places because their political or social fabric accelerate the process in some way.
- Good question Maya! I don’t know if I can honestly say since there are such wide differences within cultures and countries. There are places that value consensus more — like the Nordic countries of Europe for example or many indigenous groups.
–That’s interesting, and helps to validate the fact that we share a common humanity at our core. There’s also the danger of over-valuing consensus and blocking innovation or breakthrough thinking as a result, which I know you value in terms of being able to find creative solutions.
15. I didn’t know you existed until a minute ago, but this AMA makes we want to read your book. Thank you for doing this! On that note, do you ever pay full price for items like cable service, buying appliances, etc? Any advice on negotiating a deal when the opposing party knows that you need or want something and you have little leverage?
- Sometimes I do pay full price 🙂 And yet many things that we think are negotiable if you’re willing to take the time. One way to develop leverage is to develop a BATNA, an alternative way of satisfying your needs.
16. Have you applied your negotiation techniques to conflicts between people involving an animal?
- Not yet. But it is a growth area because there are a lot of conflicts involving animals. I remember a sign here in the mountains looking for volunteers for a bear mediation service — to help people deal with bears.
17. Facing a difficult relationship or negotiation, i.e. in political situations with other countries that might have a different political system (which might even differ deeply from what we consider to be human rights and personal freedom) what is your advice how to take care of our own mindset when it comes to how we see, treat vor speak about ‘the other side’. From your experience what might be important to keep in mind in such situations so that we are able to keep up the dialogue on the one hand but on the other hand also stand up for what we believe is very precious (such as human rights etc.)?
- Best way I know is to be respectful, empathetic even, and at the same time you can be forthright about your beliefs and values. Attack the problem, not the person. In fact, be soft on the person as you are hard on the problem. Not easy but possible.
18. Hi William. I’m a 14 year old guy who makes his money by buying things off of websites (Kijiji, Craigslist…) and negotiating is a big part of the business. What tips do you have for me to help me negotiate?
- That’s great. One tip is to know your BATNA, a phrase Roger Fisher and I coined which stands for Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. Always have in mind what is your best alternative if you cannot reach an agreement. The more you can strengthen your BATNA, the more confidence and power you will have. And good luck!
19. Hi Will, how do you remain humble and curious “like a scientist”? I find it getting more and more difficult as I know more. I consciously try to tell myself “Every person has a story that I need to learn about” but I still get bored sometimes. Do you have any favorite questions to ask people to find out their interesting sides?
- It’s natural to feel bored sometimes. You can say to yourself, “Isn’t that interesting that I am getting bored?” and maybe even investigate the feeling of boredom as a scientist would. That should keep you going. A favorite question to ask people is “What makes you come alive?” “Or what kind of future do you want for your children?”
20. Can I get into Harvard for about tree fiddy?
- Tuition is unfortunately a little higher than tree fiddy these days!
–And you call yourself a negotiation specialist!
21. How has (or has it at all?) Buddhism impacted your approach to negotiation?
- Buddhism — and similar wisdom traditions — have a lot to contribute. In difficult high-intensity conflicts like Colombia where I am headed this weekend, it is important to stay present in the midst of turmoil. Meditation helps.
–Safe travels to Colombia William, and if this is for work….may the mediation gods be with you!
22. William, What was the tipping point that had you focus on negotiation over litigation?
- Negotiation seems more challenging. And I like challenges. And what the world needs right now more than ever is good creative negotiation, better ways of dealing with our differences. There is room for litigation but the great majority of conflicts can be resolved more satisfactorily and efficiently through negotiation.
23. Could you share an example of a “NegotiAuction” that you have been a part of? What did you do or what would you suggest in order to defend from manipulation in such challenging situation?
- I have not had the opportunity to be part of a NegotiAuction. My colleague at Harvard Guhan Subramian specializes in this. You may find the answer you want in his book Dealmaking. Good luck!
24. I work for a high school that serves teens with behavior problems. Due to No Child Left Behind and other beaurocratic factors, the administration essentially refuses to kick students out unless they literally light the building on fire. I’m not saying we need to kick students out for every little thing. I’m saying that students very quickly figure out that they can cuss out teachers, cut class, refuse to do work, and get drunk on campus because the penalties that are assigned to those infractions of the rules are optional. Why bother going to detention, writing an apology letter, or doing make-up work when the consequences for repeatedly ignoring the discipline system never result in suspension or expulsion– just more “optional” detentions?
Not every kid does all that stuff, but it’s enough that many faculty and staff are experiencing a lot of stress and many students are not learning what they need to.
We want students to buckle down and earn their high school diplomas even when the classes aren’t as entertaining as eating candy and playing Xbox so they won’t get stuck working at McDonald’s when they turn 18, and so we can keep our jobs as faculty and staff. Do you have any tips on negotiating for a better environment for everyone?
- That’s a tough one, no easy answer. One approach you might try is to create a coalition. In other words, don’t try to take it on just by yourself. See if you can develop a coalition of interested students who can exercise peer pressure. Maybe they will have creative ideas too. Different context but I remember studying bullying behavior by males of female bonobo chimpanzees. When a stronger male bullies a weaker female, five females will create a coalition and form a line and back the male into a corner, as if to say, “Buddy back off.” I wish you much success!
25. Hi Bill, I’m passionate about helping people become better negotiators — in business and in life. I’d like to make a career in negotiation and mediation, including consulting and teaching. (I’m a former multi-time PON TF in the Winter Term and a Harvard PhD in a related field currently in consulting at one of the major consulting firms.) How would you suggest starting a career in the field?
- That’s great, the field needs more people like you.
Rather than starting over de novo, I would consider building on what you already do, consulting in business for example, and introduce negotiation and mediation as a lens to help your clients achieve their goals more effectively. That will help differentiate you from other consultants perhaps and also from other would be negotiators and mediators.
26. In order to be able to see more clearly what we really want how important is the time-factor? Means how important is it to arrange some spare time for finding out what we really want? What is your experience with that?
- Really important. There is no higher priority for us in negotiation than to spend time figuring out what we really want. After all, negotiation is about getting what you want — and you will be much better able to get what you want if you know what it is!
27. What was the toughest negotiation that you were involved in?
- There have been a few times when I felt physically threatened. One time in the midst of the war in Yugoslavia, I was going to meet with some leaders of a rebel republic that had been established in Yugoslavia. I was in a helicopter and someone shot at the helicopter, so I guess that would qualify. But for me, the important thing is to have some faith. Have some trust. The helicopter ended up being OK, and I landed and we spent two days with the leaders of this secessionist republic.