Book Review: Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes – Negotiating 
an agreement without giving in

1981 revised 1991 Random Century Press, 
ISBN 0 7126 5528 X

I suppose that Getting to Yes is still one of the basic handbooks on negotiation, 
although it is now nearly twenty years old. In fact, I heard it mentioned on the 
radio by a speaker who was talking about legal matters, only a few months ago. 
The basis of the book is a method which was originally developed at the Harvard 
Negotiation Project at Harvard University, which has contributed to international 
negotiations like the Arab-Israeli negotiations at  Camp David. At the same time
 the authors present the method as suitable for personal and family issues, 
as well as situations at work and legal and other issues requiring resolution. They open 

“Like it or not, you are a negotiator. Negotiation is a fact of life. You discuss a 
raise with your boss. You try to agree with a stranger on a price for a house. Two 
lawyers try to settle a lawsuit arising from a car accident… A person negotiates 
with his spouse about where to go for dinner and with his child about when the
 lights go out. Negotiation is a basic means of getting what you want from others…”
 (my italics)

It is plain from the outset that this book will not be exploring the psychology of 
conflict or the emotions which are involved, but that its method aims at practical 
solutions rather than analysis. At the same time, it is surprising how much attention 
the authors pay to the emotional climate in which negotiations may take place. In 
their first outline of the method, they insist that you must “Separate the PEOPLE 
from the Problem”, because if you don’t, “the parties’ relationship tends to be come 
entangled with their discussions of substantive issues

Realizing that this is much easier said than done, the authors devote the rest of this
 section to helping you achieve this desirable separation, and – interestingly enough 
- many of the things which they advocate are clearly borrowed from counselling 
methods. They speak of active listening, of making emotions explicit and 
acknowledging them as legitimate, of speaking about yourself and not of the other:

“Separating the people from the problem is not something you can do once and
 forget about; you have to keep working at it. The basic approach is to deal with
 people as human beings and with the problem on its merits.”

From this point on, I was struck by the obstinate way in which the authors never 
allowed the questions to fall within the framework of Victim-Aggressor. There is,
 for instance, one case where a tenant has been overcharged by a landlord who is
 also a friend and he wants to get some money back now that he is leaving. This
 would seem to be a classic case of victimization, because the tenant had been 
misled by the landlord about the proper charges. The authors illustrate the
 negotiation in dialogue, with the tenant very carefully not attacking the landlord personally, but suggesting that the landlord is probably as anxious to rectify the
 situation, once it has been made clear, as the tenant himself. To do this the tenant 
focuses on the idea that the landlords moral probity is more important to him than 
the smallish sum of money involved. In the case given, the landlord finds this 
acceptable and amicably agrees to repay the amount of the overcharge. The
 extraordinary thing about this dialogue to me is the resolute refusal of the tenant to 
present himself as a victim of a rapacious landlord (which would cast the other in 
a most unenviable light), and I think that it may be partly this refusal which makes 
the negotiation work.

The method for negotiating is creative and mutual, involving brain-storming and
 inventing ‘options for mutual gain’, as well as achieving ‘objective criteria’ together 
which can be used to evaluate possible solutions. ” However, the question of
 unequal power in the relationship is addressed as well:

“What if they are more powerful? What if they won’t play? What if they use dirty 

To each of these questions the answer is basically that there may be times when a
 negotiated agreement is not possible, and in these cases the authors recommend 
you to have a clear ‘Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement’. Interestingly, the 
final words of this section are “Don’t be a Victim.” The sense that, even though
 you may not get what you want out of the negotiation, you can come away with 
yourself respect intact, is strong throughout.

Although Getting to Yes was published nearly twenty years ago, the revised edition
 of 1991 is only different in that it includes additional sections in which the authors 
address specific questions which have come up since its original publication. They 
chose not to ‘tamper’ with the original text. The additional material addresses much
 the same area that intrigued me, of the way to negotiate an agreement from a 
position of feeling hard-done-by. The authors meet this with ideas of ‘Fairness and
 Principled Negotiation’:

“Question 3: ‘Should I be fair if I don’t have to be?’

Getting to Yes is not a sermon on the morality of right and wrong; it is a book on 
how to do well in negotiation. We do not suggest that you should be good for the 
sake of being good (nor do we discourage it). …

But at the same time, they want you to ask yourself:

“Will the unfair result be durable?… What damage might the unfair result cause to 
this or other relationships?… Will your conscience bother you?”

Like the tenant in the earlier example, perhaps, the authors have decided that the 
best way to meet this kind of question is tactically to assume that the questioner 
would prefer to be fair, really.

Many people find that they care about more in life than money and ‘beating’
 the other side.”

Mary Montaut.