39. Getting to Yes Turns 40

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury, with Bruce Patton coming on board for subsequent editions.

It remains by far the best seller in the field and has been translated into dozens of languages. William, our guest in this episode, describes the book’s genesis. And together we discuss its enduring impact on how we understand and engage in negotiation.

The book’s key contribution was advancing a macro theory, one that applies to both deal making and dispute resolution, from buying a car to seeking peace in war-torn regions. The model emphasized three key steps.

1. Separate the people from the problem. This precept wasn’t meant to suggest that negotiation should be depersonalized. Far from it. The text puts building relationships and dealing with emotional issues as a top priority. Focus on that from the outset, the authors advised. Disentangle interpersonal aspects from substantive issues (e.g., dollars and cents, rights and liabilities).

2. Focus on interests, not positions. Lobbing demands back and forth can turn negotiation into a contest where making a concession feels like an act of weakness. But if no one budges, deadlock can result. And even if somebody finally blinks, their strained relationship may hamper implementation.

3. Invent options for mutual gain. Fisher and Ury’s most important contribution was highlighting how negotiation can be a problem-solving process in which parties make creative trades given their different needs and priorities. Earlier books like Robert Ringer’s 1974 Winning Through Intimidation and Herb Cohen’s 1980 You Can Negotiate Anything extolled a take-no-prisoners approach. For many readers, Getting to Yes’s emphasis on “mutual gains” was an attractive, refreshing alternative.

Notwithstanding the book’s virtues (especially, its fresh outlook and accessibility) its success signals there must have been something in the early in the 1980s that drew people to negotiation.

Negotiation centers popped up at universities. The Program on Negotiation drew on faculty from Tufts, MIT, Harvard, and other Greater Boston schools. Similar programs developed at Northwestern, Stanford, and Pepperdine, just to name a few institutions. At the beginning of the 1980s, professional schools of law, business, and government rarely offered negotiation courses. Somehow, ten years later, most of them did. Companies large and small began to provide negotiation training for their employees. And many books on negotiation followed, as well. Some in the spirit of Getting to Yes, others decidedly different.

Would all this have happened if that book never had been written? Absolutely. I’m sure of that. But my guess is that the book shaped and accelerated many of these ventures by linking theory and practice, and legitimizing general strategies that apply in a wide variety of contexts.

Talk about shelf life. Forty years. Four decades. And the book is still having impact. A remarkable legacy!