By: Michele Wood

Negotiating is a critical skill we all need in order to create and maintain relationships in both our personal and professional lives. Unfortunately, very few of us get specific training in negotiation tactics and methods. For women especially, a lack of confidence in negotiation skills can create undue anxiety. When selecting metaphors for engaging in a negotiation, men often pick “winning a ballgame” while many women choose “going to the dentist.” Not only does this cause stress, but dreading the process can make women less effective, inhibiting creative solutions. This has very real and costly consequences for women, especially in the workplace. Research shows that 20 percent of women never negotiate their salaries. This leads to an average of $7,000 left on the table in the first year after college graduation, and adds up to between $650,000 and $1,000,000 over the course of a 45-year career.

What exactly is a negotiation? In their book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, authors Roger Fisher and William Ury define negotiation as “A back and forth communication designed to reach an agreement when you and the other side have some interests that are shared and others that are opposed.” All of us have been in the position of having to negotiate: buying a car or a home, asking for a raise, agreeing to a contract with a client. But many of us don’t realize that all relationships require negotiations. All mothers will recognize their own negotiation skills when trying to get toddlers to eat vegetables or go to sleep at bedtime.

We are typically conditioned to regard negotiation as a zero-sum process. That is, if you win something, then I must have lost something. We glorify negotiators that are aggressive and hard-edged, who claim to concede nothing. These images are combined with other common myths including:

  • There is a winner and a loser in all negotiations
  • Preparation is not necessary
  • Negotiating is synonymous with arguing or debating
  • The party with less power will not be as successful
  • Some things are non-negotiable

When we enter into a negotiation scenario with these misconceptions about how success is actually achieved, we sell ourselves and the potential for a good outcome short. Luckily, Fisher and Ury offer an alternative to the zero-sum fallacy called the “Principled Negotiation.” The basic premise of the principled negotiation is that instead of bargaining over positions, one must instead focus on interests. In other words, a principled negotiation seeks the win-win scenario.

To understand components of the method, the authors break down the idea into four areas of concentration: people, interests, options, and criteria.


We like to think of ourselves as creatures of calm, rational, and logical decision-making ability. Decades of research into behavioral economics shows that this is often not the case. Humans are beings of emotion, cultural conditioning, perception, and unconscious bias. Something that sounds reasonable to one party may seem outrageous to another. To help combat these unseen forces, Fisher and Ury encourage us to separate our egos, ourselves, from our interests. To do this, we must recognize that the problem to solve is distinct from the people with whom we are negotiating. We need to see the other party as a partner in problem-solving, not as an adversary.


Interests are what we hope to walk away with. Identifying what our true interests are is the critical task in entering the negotiation process, and these should not be confused with positions. This can be harder than it sounds. To help readers distinguish the difference, the authors write “Your position is something you have decided upon. Your interests are what caused you to so decide.” For example, in a chilly room you may have decided to close the window. Your position is wanting the window closed. Your interest however, is being warmer. If another person in the room prefers the window open, you can work toward solutions to create more warmth instead of arguing whether the window stays open or shut. In any negotiation, it’s likely that each side has multiple interests, and this can be a source of creative problem-solving.


Identifying options for solving the problem or the conflict is the goal in the initial portion of a negotiation. To do this, it’s important to remove any potential obstacles to finding options. Such obstacles include premature judgment, thinking that there is a single answer to the problem, the assumption of a fixed amount (zero-sum), and thinking that “solving their problem is their problem.” If parties to a negotiation can identify these tendencies in themselves and work to overcome them, options will begin to present themselves much more readily.


One way to help remove ego and position from the process from the beginning of the negotiation is to identify some agreed-upon criteria from which to judge an outcome. This should be based on some objective standard that is widely recognized as authoritative. For example, many people look to a source like the Kelly Blue Book when trying to determine the fair price of a used car. A mutually-agreed upon expert witness may be appropriate in some cases, or a professional appraisal. If an objective standard can be agreed upon at the beginning, it will help remove the tendency for falling back on positions.


Of course, not all negotiations will end successfully, and sometimes it can make more sense to abort a negotiation. To figure out whether to engage or proceed with a negotiation, it’s important to consider your “Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement,” or “BATNA” for short. The BATNA is just a way to think about your options if the negotiation isn’t successful.

The BATNA is important for two reasons:

  1. To protect you against making an agreement that you should reject
  2. To help you make the most of the assets you do have so any agreement reached will satisfy your interests as well as possible.

Before any negotiation, it’s important to work through what you will do if you fail to reach an agreement. This is a critical part of the preparation for a negotiation.

In order to evaluate your BATNA and understand your options, you have to do a careful inventory of your assets in the bargaining. It’s important to remember that the relative negotiating power of the two parties depends primarily on how attractive to each is the option of not reaching an agreement. If the other party will be better off with the status quo, it is difficult to convince them to give that up.

To help yourself understand your BATNA, the following steps should be taken:

  1. Invent a list of actions you can take if no agreement is reached
  2. Improve some of the more promising ideas and convert them to practical alternatives
  3. Select one alternative that seems best
  4. Judge all negotiation terms against this BATNA
  5. Carefully consider the other side’s BATNA to understand their position better

Remember, a negotiation is not a competition and we need to let go of the “tug of war” image that is common in order to change to a more positive, open mindset. To get comfortable with the Principled Negotiation tactics, take note of micro-negotiations in your everyday life and identify ways you can incorporate the examples. It can be more fun than going to the dentist, and instead of needing to “win the game” we can think of a successful negotiation as a collaborative project completed that produced a valuable result. And for professional women, that result can be the $650,000 to $1,000,000 we have been leaving on the table.


Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In  by Roger Fisher and William Ury. Second Edition, 1991