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How to Use Principled Negotiation

This article is part of our series on negotiation. Read the first piece in the series, “An Introduction to Negotiation,” here.


Negotiation doesn’t have to become a fraught exchange, with two parties pitted against one another vying to walk away the “winner” – in fact, that’s one negotiation strategy that may end with the least positive outcome. Other negotiation tactics, like principle-based negotiation, can foster better collaboration and even better outcomes for everyone involved.

What is Principle-Based Negotiation?

Principle-based negotiation, sometimes referred to as negotiation on the merits, focuses on the procedure that leads to the actual subject of the negotiation, by emphasizing people, interests, options and criteria. With a principle-based negotiation, the desired outcome is a win-win solution where everyone walks away from the process with a victory.

A common story used to explain principled negotiation is that two chefs need an orange to finish their recipe, but there is only one orange. So, they decide to compromise and split the orange in half. The first chef squeezes the juice from the orange to finish his sauce, although it’s not really enough for what he’s preparing. The second chef grates the peel and stirs it into his cake batter, resigned baking the cake without the full amount.

If the chefs had just communicated on their interests – why they needed the orange – rather than their positions – that they need one orange – they could have both gotten what they needed to prepare their food by the recipe.

Focusing on the principles is not always so straightforward. Luckily, there are are established principles that drive principled negotiation, outlined in the seminal book “Getting to Yes: Negotiation Agreement Without Giving In.” They include the following:

Separate the People From the Problem

This simple principle may be the easiest to forget: negotiators are people, too. This means they have emotions, act unpredictably and hold personal values tightly. Those involved in negotiation should view everyone as a collaborator, not as an opposing party. The objective of the negotiation is to attack the problem, not one another, and skilled negotiators remember everyone comes to the table with emotions. These emotions must be addressed, but separated from the issues at hand. When all parties are viewed as partners in the outcome, it can be easier to communicate clearly and listen respectfully to all perspectives. Negotiators must be willing to explore opposing opinions and refrain from bestowing blame, which can quickly shut down good communication.

Focus on Interests, Not Position

While striking a compromise may seem like an amicable approach, it often renders a solution that can be a little lacking for everyone. Negotiators need to consider the interests behind the position to ensure all interests are addressed, asking why does this person want this?

For example, two department heads may be tasked with planning a collaborative work event. One may be fighting for an on-site, on-hours party while the other is vying for an offsite, after-hours event. A negotiator determined to focus on interests may uncover that the first person is feeling strapped for budget, while the second is tight on planning time and has found a site that will handle everything. Now that the underlying interests are revealed, it’s likely the two can find an approach that helps to manage budget and time for both parties.

Negotiators can also look to shared interests to help find a common ground solution. An open exchange about what interests and values are driving a position not only helps both parties understand one another better, but it also paves the way to identifying tradeoffs.

Invent Options for Mutual Gain

A principled negotiation shouldn’t drive toward one single resolution. Instead, parties should brainstorm multiple solutions that meet shared interests and creatively address issues before selecting the final solution. The group should begin with the most promising ideas to begin evaluating, and should remember the ideas aren’t presented for judgment, but as an exercise to assessing the problem and considering specific actions to address it.

To cultivate an environment of creativity in this phase, everyone – not just a designated spokesperson – should participate. In fact, a third party may be useful in this stage to help facilitate.

Insist on Using Objective Criteria

When it is time to reach an agreement, all parties in the negotiation need to look to an outside, objective criteria to guide the decision, as opposed to disputed facts from the other party. Before beginning to review the options developed, everyone needs to agree on these criteria. These may be an expert opinion, industry protocol, legal precedent, scientific studies or market value.

In addition, each party’s satisfaction with the proposed solution should also be a measure included, among other considerations, such as:

  • Is the solution fair? And, how can fairness be assessed?
  • Does the solution have any implications or side effects?
  • What are the costs and benefits?
  • Does the solution address the real causes of the problem?
  • Is the solution sustainable?

Manage Perceptions and Emotions

Negotiators should consider the other party’s perceptions to better see the issue from their side. This practice helps the negotiator truly find a way to be on that side, even if she doesn’t agree. Often, this type of perception management helps to relieve tension and conflict.

Similarly, negotiators should never assume the other party wants what is worst for their opponent. Openly discussing differences and perceptions can help to root out true intentions and find common ground.

To help manage emotions, everyone should be encouraged to speak freely – even of their strong emotions. Often, once people feel heard and express their emotions, it is easier for them to focus on the problem. In addition, when the expectation is that everyone will receive a turn to express emotion and share perspective, it’s easier to listen to others.

Express Appreciation

Just as people like to be heard, they also liked to be appreciated – particularly in a negotiation. When negotiators find and express value in another perspective, it helps people to feel heard and to communicate better.

In a principled negotiation, if negotiators cannot reach an agreement that leaves everyone better off, walking away may be the right thing to do. The outcome of principled negotiation isn’t compromise – it’s a better outcome for everyone. This means in some cases, negotiators may need to move to their best alternative to a negotiated agreed (BATNA) and that will still be a successful outcome. From start to finish, a principled negotiation must stick to just the principles.

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