“In the morning when I look at myself in the mirror, I like to remind myself that I am seeing the person who is probably going to give me the most trouble that day, the opponent who will be the biggest obstacle to me getting what I truly want.”

So writes William Ury in his just published new book, Getting to Yes with Yourself. Those who attended Collaborative Scotland’s Day of Dialogue in September at which William Ury was our guest conversationalist by video link, or who were present at The Hub in Edinburgh in 2009 when he led a full day workshop, will recall a man of warmth and humility, combined with clarity and great wisdom.

Ury is the distinguished co-author of the seminal Getting to Yes, arguably the most important text about negotiation in the past thirty years. It sets out the basis for what we call interest-based negotiation, where the focus is on what we (and clients) really need rather than positions, entitlements and wants. It reminds us of the central importance of business and personal relationships and of effective communication. One of the most useful pieces of the jigsaw is the recognition that the way to measure proposals made in negotiation is not how much or how little we get or give but what will happen if we don’t come to an agreed solution? These are the classic benchmarks referred to as BATNAs and WATNAs (Best – and Worst – Alternatives to a Negotiated Agreement).  

Ury has now come to the conclusion that the missing piece in all his writing about dealing with conflict is the inner one. Indeed, he describes this latest book as a “prequel” to Getting to Yes, the essential prerequisite to being able to achieve win-win, interest-based negotiated outcomes with others. Often, he observes, those who understand Getting to Yes fall back under pressure into costly and destructive win-lose methods, usually because we perceive others as “difficult people”, threatening to take advantage of us and to cause us loss.  We are “reaction machines”.

He writes that “very little in life may be under our full control, but the choice between yes and no is ours to make at any moment. We can choose to say yes or no to ourselves, to be either our best ally or our worst opponent. We can choose to say yes or no to life, to treat life either as friend or foe. We can choose to say yes or no to others, to relate to them either as possible partners or implacable enemies. And our choices make all the difference.” Choose well and we can have three kinds of win.

I have often concluded training sessions with words from a poster in a hotel in Philadelphia which described the difference between something ordinary and something extraordinary as that little “extra”. Much of UK Sport’s successful Olympic programme, in which I was privileged to play a small part, was underpinned by the message that the difference lies at the margins, that very small things can make a huge difference.

So, Ury suggests a number of apparently small changes that may make all the difference. Put yourself in your shoes –suspend your inner critic: what do you really need? Develop your inner BATNA – who are you blaming for your own needs not being met? What are the costs? Can you take personal responsibility rather than blaming others? Reframe your picture – can you accept life as it is and not feel that it is always against you in some way? If you do, then what? Stay in the zone – dispense with resentments about the past and anxieties about the future. Be personally present in the present. (The comparison with biblical teaching cannot be overlooked…). Respect others even if they don’t respect you – separating people from the problem was a central message of Getting to Yes; this reminds us that we can operate far better if we avoid being sucked into an antagonistic mind-set. Give and receive – Ury draws on the excellent work by another Harvard scholar Adam Grant, in his book Give and Take, which shows that thoughtful givers are in the longer run more successful. In other words, moving from the apparent scarcity of the win/lose model to maximising gains all round leads to a double- or triple-win.

Reflecting the passage at the beginning of this article, Ury refers to President Theodore Roosevelt’s colourful observation: “If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.” Finally, though, it is about acceptance and respect, towards yourself as much as towards life and others. And, says Ury, this is a lifelong journey, needing daily practice. It should all be common sense but, in reality, it is uncommon sense: common sense that is uncommonly applied. This is where, says Ury, we may need the Third Side, the independent coach, facilitator or mediator, to help us along the way.


Getting to Yes with Yourself is available from Harper Collins

This blog was published as an article in The Scotsman on Monday 2 March 2015

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