"Some of the most effective negotiating you will ever do is when you are not talking," Roger Fisher and William Ury remark in their new book about the art of negotiation. Heretofore, a negotiation, which probably predates language in human history, has included a lot of agitation, shouting and pounding on tables. Now, these two men from the Harvard Negotiation Project are talking about silence as a weapon (no, a tool; weapons are out) in negotiating. "People tend to feel uncomfortable with silence," they explain, "particularly if they have doubts about the merits of something they have said."
An unsettling silence is one of the most aggressive tactics recommended by these two experts. It comes toward the end of the book, in a section called "Yes, But . . ." which raises objections to the ideal of peace and brotherhood among dialectical adversaries: "What If They Are More Powerful? . . . What If They Won't Play? . . . What If They Use Dirty Tricks?" In this section more than the others, "Getting to Yes" gives some clue to its affinities to the nonviolent movements that provoked so much violence in the '60s before becoming assimilated into the psyche of a generation coming into power. Now, Harvard Business School is proposing the spirits of Thoreau and Gandhi as ideals to be pursued in our board rooms and union halls, not to mention international negotiations and disputes with the landlord. In a sense, what they suggest is not merely a pacifist style of dialectics but an adoption of guerrilla tactics a la Ho Chi Minh. If there is a single underlying axiom in the book, it is that negotiators should not establish and try to hold fixed positions.
What is happening? The process described a year ago by another writer in the field, Tessa A. Warschaw, whose "Winning by Negotiation" (more chatty, anecdotal and popularized than "Getting to Yes") is another symptom of the process: "the old behavior patterns that once governed American life -- force and fear on the one hand, acquiescence and appeasement on the other -- are increasingly suspect. . . . Many people of influence today who are trying to deal with others using the same techniques they endured as they struggled to the top are wondering why the old methods aren't working any longer."
There was a time when negotiators thought the ideal negotiating position meant one had to blind and gag the person on the other side of the table and point a gun at him. Now, Fisher and Ury are suggesting that if possible, both parties in a negotiation should sit on the same side of the table and work together. Traditionally, a negotiation has been treated as a zero-sum game -- one in which points won by player A are automatically lost by player B. The new pattern reminds us that there are also many kinds of games (from mountain-climbing to sex) in which more than one party can win.
The ideas in this book are revolutionary in their current application but hardly new. They are embodied in the proverbial wisdom that honey catches more flies than vinegar, and they underlie Aesop's fable about how the sun and the wind each tried to make a man remove his cloak. Lip service, at least, has been paid to them in traditional diplomacy (which has been defined as "the art of saying 'nice doggie' until you can find a rock"). Fisher and Ury admit this cheerfully: "There is probably nothing in this book which you did not already know at some level of your experience. What we have tried to do is organize common sense and common experience in a way that provides a usable framework for thinking and acting." This they do with great lucidity in a book that is a joy to read for those who delight in concise, lucid, logical exposition. But there is something more than that in "Getting to Yes." Fisher and Ury are urging these timeworn ideas not as tactics or postures but as a philosophy, a basic orientation in negotiating. They are suggesting that people should become what they have always pretended to be.
It is a difficult assignment: Don't argue from fixed positions, but try to get both parties to approach negotiation in the spirit of meeting a common challenge. Argue from principle and don't entangle personalities with problems. See the other party's point of view, listen to his side, make positive use of the emotions generated in the process, emphasize common interests and focus on the possibilities of mutual gain. And so on into proliferating details that add up to a mandate for secular sainthood. Can it work? It often does, when it is tried. But those occasions have been so rare (the Camp David agreement, for example, and the massive, complex international conference on the Law of the Sea) that statistical data cannot be cited.
But there are solid bases for hoping that these techniques can become generally useful. In negotiations, usually, the person you are trying to convince is the other party. You are not like legal adversaries trying to convince a judge and jury, the authors point out, but more like "two judges trying to reach agreement on how to decide a case." And negotations are usually not a one-shot encounter but part of a continuing relationship, important to both parties, that can be enriched or embittered by the process. Such considerations make the ideas embodied in this book more attractive to those who can accept its point of view -- and apparently their number is growing. One might say that these are ideas whose time has come -- but of course, that time happened a long time ago.