Left unattended, troublesome issues tend to pile up. Before long, a group can divide into adversarial “sides” facing a daunting tangle of disagreement.
In Getting to Yes, a classic book on negotiation, Roger Fisher and William Ury offer helpful steps to resolve difficult issues. By purposeful back-and-forth communication, they maintain, contending parties can find a way to meet the legitimate interests of both sides and resolve issues effectively and fairly.
It is best, they advise, to address an issue quickly. Delay opens the way for mistrust to fester. Prompt attention allows participants to focus on the problem, rather than the faults and failings of people on the opposing side.
Often, both sides see an “obvious” solution. A crucial step toward agreement is to identify the underlying interest(s) of each party, the concerns and reasoning behind the proposed solution. Then participants can discern (and list) the shared and differing needs, desires, hopes, and fears of both sides.
Once basic needs are clear, participants can brainstorm to invent alternate solutions. For this, there are helpful ground rules: Be creative. Be flexible. Listen with an open mind. Resist premature criticism. Side by side, aim to invent a range of possible solutions.
Among the options, participants need to be objective and reasonable in shaping a solution that meets the basic concerns of both sides to the extent possible. If necessary, participants can devise a fallback plan, such as a partial or “trial” solution, that is agreeable to both parties.
By these sequential steps, troublesome issues can be resolved. The valid concerns of contending parties can be met in ways that are fair, lasting, and congruent with the interests of the whole group. One issue at a time, even tangles of disagreement can be unraveled.
For nearly thirty years, Getting to Yes has helped readers learn a principled and effective way to negotiate. A recent edition (2011) updates the original insights of Fisher and Ury in the fundamentals of conflict resolution.