Getting to Yes: Summary & Review

getting to yes

Getting to Yes (1981) is a classic of negotiation literature
William Ury and Roger Fisher, the authors, shifted the way the Western world thinks and teaches negotiation tactics and techniques, helping to go from a model of pure strength and power, to one of collaboration and win-win.

Bullet Summary

  • Separate the problems from the people: attack the problem and respect the people 
  • Negotiate based on interests, not on positions
  • Look for shared interests
  • Be open to change opinion based on facts (if you want the other party to be open to your influence as well, which you should)

Full Summary

About the Authors: Roger Fisher studied law at Harvard and later became a professor at Harvard Law School. William Ury studied anthropology and later dedicated himself to negotiation tactics. He is also the author of “Getting Past No“. Both Ury and Fisher are co-founders of the Harvard Negotiation Project.
Getting to yes is based on the analyses and researches of the Harvard Negotiation Project.

The main aim of Getting to Yes is to avoid adversarial negotiation (positional bargaining), clashes of egos, and escalation that lead to nowhere -or lead to lose-lose-.

Be Soft on People, Hard on Problems

The authors argue that most people fall into two different categories when it comes to negotiation: the soft approach and the hard approach.

The hard approach is assertive or aggressive and seeks to win. The soft approach is more concerned with the relationship, has difficulties saying no, and tends to be more associated with submissiveness.

The soft approach is great… When dealing with other soft negotiators. 
However, it loses big when facing other hard negotiators.

My Note: So true, and goes deeper than just negotiations
True, that’s why I make the point that people must learn the power moves of the bullies of this world.
Also read: to be good you must learn to be bad.

Finally, the authors argue that you don’t have to choose between hard and soft.
You should be hard on the problems that your negotiation addresses while being warm and respectful towards the people.

Differentiating between the people and the issues is one of the key tenets of Getting to Yes and what the authors call Principled Negotiation.

Successful negotiation requires being both firm and open

4 Steps of Principled Negotiation

Principled Negotiation is based on four steps:

  1. Separate people from the problem
  2. Focus on interests, not positions
  3. Generate options for mutual gain
  4. Insist on using objective criteria

1. Separate People From The Problem

In negotiations, it’s easy for egos to get in the way.

When you identify people with positions -or problems-, it’s most likely that negotiations risk to escalate and/or reach an impasse because you end up in adversarial negotiations. 

In adversarial negotiations often people end up stuck not because the proposed solution is not good for them, but because they don’t want to seem like they are caving in.
Separating people from problems also helps people save face, as recommended in How to Win Friends and Influence People.

  • Clarify perceptions (reach common understanding of both parties’ needs and goals, put yourself in their shoes)
  • Recognize and legitimize emotions (emotions are a common source of adversarial negotiations and escalations: acknowledge them, let people vent and never take things personally)
  • Communicate clearly (miscommunication, false assumptions, and lack of understanding are at the roots of depersonalization and adversarial negotiation)

The authors also stress the importance of listening and understanding, which is the principle of “seek to understand, then to be understood” in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

When you talk about a problem you also want to separate people from problems and avoid “you sentences” which sound accusatory (also read how to criticize correctly). 

Constant battle for dominance threatens the relationship

2. Focus on Interests, Not Positions

When you focus on positions you blind yourself to alternative solutions and it’s more likely that you end up in adversarial positions (ie.: my position VS your position).

While we seek to win with our positions, we can find many different to meet our interests (example: instead of “I want the window open VS you want it closed” it’s “I need fresh air” and “you need to stay warm”).

3. Generate Options for Mutual Gain

Here you seek solutions and alternatives for win-win and mutual gain. 

If it’s not necessarily mutual gain, it can still be the limitation of damage which, in many situations, is still a win-win (example: landlord agrees to pay back part of the rent rather than ending up in court is still a gain).

4. Insist on Using Objective Criteria

Using objective criteria and agreeing on fair standards is all the more important when the parties are in direct opposition.

These are the types of negotiations that are at the highest risk of becoming adversarial and laying out and adhering to fair standards and criteria will help keep the negotiations focused on the issues. 

For example, you could say:

You: Look, you want a high price and I want a low price. Let’s figure out what a fair price could be.

Now you have a shared goal and you might mention a few ways to find out.

If the seller comes out with a certain price, ask what’s the theory behind that price and frame it as a way of looking for the common goal of reaching a fair price.

Seek Alternatives: BATNA

BATNA stands for Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement and rests on the assumption that you are only as powerful and strong as the quality of your alternatives

Fisher and Ury introduce BATNA talking about how weaker parties can negotiate with more powerful ones.
The key is investigating and developing alternatives. If they can find good alternatives, it can be a good idea to let their negotiating partner know, which will strengthen their position.

Sometimes for weaker parties, the best alternative will be to not reach an agreement at all.
If that’s the case, they should resist pressure and walk away.

Dirty Negotiation Tricks

Most people respond to dirty tactics by doing nothing and hoping it won’t happen again. It’s usually not a good solution (Hitler-Chamberlain example).
Responding in kind is also not a good idea.

Ury and Fisher’s solution is to draw attention to the trick and then negotiate fairer rules for the rest of the negotiation.

My Note: Sometimes you can strategically pretend you’re falling for it
It’s certainly a good solution… In some situations. But not the best in all situations. As Robert Greene says in “The 48 Laws of Power“, sometimes it can pay to pretend you are falling for their trick.

If you are interested in dirty negotiation tricks I have a specific lesson on it in Power University which summarizes all the literature on negotiation, psychology, and manipulation.


20 Manipulative Negotiation Tactics

Real-Life Applications

There is plenty of genius advice in “Getting to Yes” and I have learned a few crucial tips that improved my negotiation skills.
Here are some:

  • Start With The Highest/Lowest Number You Can Justify

It does make sense to go into a negotiation with the highest number you can justify without being embarrassed.

That’s because, in the absence of exact criteria, people will estimate how well they are doing based on how far they have moved from the initial number.

However, if you go too high, you risk not being credible. That’s why the authors recommend a number that you can somehow justify.

  • Mention Third-Party Sources When Making First Offer

Since your first offer will be rather high (or low), and if you move too quickly away from it you lose credibility, the authors recommend you don’t take ownership of the first number.

How to do it?
Mention a third-party mentioning the price, or say “one factor to consider is..”, or you can say that a similar house elsewhere would sell for X amount of money.

That way, you don’t take ownership of the price, you don’t come across as an overly aggressive bidder and you leave yourself room from moving away from that number without losing face and credibility.

  • Aspire for Good Results

There is a strong correlation between aspirations and positive results. So within reason, aspire for good results and expect a good outcome for your negotiations.

getting to yes


  • Few Examples

At times I wished for more examples.
There is one example which is genius, and that only whet my appetite for more. 
A few more examples at that level, and Getting to Yes was going to be the best book on negotiation ever.

  • Text Negotiations Benefit Fast Talkers?

The authors say that texts, being so quick, favor fast talkers. I don’t see how that could ever be true since texts don’t convey voice and slowing down the tempo is as easy as delaying your responses.

  • In-Person Negotiation Isn’t Better With Power Imbalances

The authors strongly prefer negotiation in person. And that makes sense. However, they don’t mention that in negotiations where one party has much more power, the weaker party can often gain with some distance.

  • When Attacked: Sit Back

When the other party attacks you personally, don’t get defensive and don’t attack back.
Let them take off steam and then move back to the common problem.

  • Do Build a Connection

Building a human connection before getting into it is a great way to help negotiations flow smoothly.

And finally:

The most powerful argument is convincing them you’re asking for no more than what’s fair


The basics of effective negotiation are here. And the example of getting back money from a rent-controlled apartment was genius.

Read After Getting to Yes


“Getting to Yes” is a classic of negotiation techniques, and for good reasons: it’s a seminal book.

The biggest issue of many negotiations, in my opinion, is in getting into an adversarial position, and “Getting to Yes” is all about moving past that.

It’s not as strong on “power moves” in my opinion but its main concepts of focusing on problems, common interests and not escalating bad behavior were revolutionary and are still the foundation of any successful negotiation.

Check the best books on negotiation or get the book on Amazon

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