After reading the debate over the book Getting To Yes, I was surprised by the strong difference in opinion on what rules and methods the authors believed should guide a negotiation. Fisher and Ury say their book is descriptive - one that describes elemental truths about the process parties should always keep in mind while negotiating. White and McCarthy, however, see this approach as limited, and not really helpful at prescribing the real core of what happens in negotiation. I believe, though, both sets of authors end up advocating two parts of the same process. Whether one seeks a deeper understanding of the subject or a method to accomplish an objective, both are essential in knowing how to negotiate. The theory and practice of negotiation are not substitutes for one another. Both enlighten and direct in their own way.

Reading the different views about negotiation evoked memories of my own education. In school, you first learn the general principles of how things work and the history of how events have transpired. Then comes a big transition into the working world, where you face new challenges and responsibilities. It is often here you realize you have so much more to learn, and the best way to learn it is by experience. Often you feel frustrated that the working world does not resemble the rarefied, intellectual atmosphere of college and grad school, where ideas mattered and issues were passionately discussed. Your office coworkers, however, see no use for your high-minded ideas in the day-to-day grind. They see you as fresh out of school, with limited skills in knowing how to get the job done. Like one’s own education, negotiating is a constant battle between a principled side and a pragmatic side. Both are important in understanding how to operate in the world to the best of your abilities.

Principles and Positions

Fisher and Ury propose four ‘propositions’ to describe basic rules governing all negotiation. These rules - separate people from the problem, focusing on basic interests, developing mutually satisfying options, and using objective standards - seek to form a fair and impartial basis on which to negotiate an issue. They claim using these propositions will benefit in ‘wise results, efficient consensus, and amicable agreement’. Although White and McCarthy also support these propositions as a part of the negotiating process, they believe all negotiations end up in a ‘distributive’ phase, where one gain for a party is always at the expense of the other party. White, in particular, believes Fisher and Ury do not adequately describe the negotiating process by focusing on these propositions. By ignoring the distributive phase, White claims the propositions are of limited use to those who practice negotiation.

McCarthy and White both claim that negotiation is difficult, and the real world too complex to be guided by Fisher and Ury’s elementary maxims. The only way to find a solution is to recognize and deal with the ‘positions’ that clearly define where the parties stand. For White, the process of negotiation is then how persausive a rationalization you can develop to sway the other side. McCarthy echoes this thought by saying that negotiation in practice is not about principles or a better argument, but about having a stronger position. Both sets of authors differ as to the value of the other’s argument in guiding the process. By turning principles and positions into opposites that cannot be considered at the same time, they limit a fuller understanding of the process, and the possibilities using both methods can generate.


The debate, then, is based on the differing visions of the negotiating process. These visions are further based on the limited definitions each uses for parts of the process. Terms like conflict, negotiation and outcome describe parts of the process, but they are interpreted by the authors in different ways. By examining these interpretations, we can see how they are just different parts of the same process.

Definition of Conflict

One clear difference is the way the authors view the conflict that is to be resolved through the negotiation. Fisher and Ury expand the range of the conflict to a wider context. They see developing a sense of shared interest between parties as essential to solving the problem. Fisher’s story of two men stranded in a rowboat is an apt example. Both men have the greater need to be rescued together, therefore it does not make sense to threaten their own lives fighting over food rations. By expanding the definition of the conflict to include things beyond the argument itself, Fisher and Ury find connections between parties that can serve as a base for a solution.

White and McCarthy, however, see the conflict between two parties as the entire basis for negotiation. Each party has a very defined role and clear reasons for its position. The conflict arises when those positions are unresolvable unless concessions are made. This ‘zero-sum game’ is considered to be the ultimate and inevitable end of any negotiation - the ‘hard bargaining’ when issues of power and self-interest become the basis on which things are decided.

It is difficult to see why there should be a debate. There are times when hard bargaining may be the best means to the end. Fisher states that positional bargaining is best when there are “single-issues and where the transaction costs of exploring interests would be high.” Similarly, White agrees that discovering interests and searching for alternatives can be a help in moving a negotiation to its end. Each method can be used at some phase of the process. The authors only differ as to how the parties relationship affects the process. I find that each method can be a valuable tool as long as one understands the advantages and disadvantages of either.

Definition of Negotiation

The same difference in terms applies to each side’s view as to what negotiation really is. White and McCarthy see the process as enhancing and utilizing the relative powers each party has. It is a step by step process where one starts from an extreme position and tries to yield little to achieve the most gain. The key to this method involves enhancing and utilizing a your negotiating power at each phase of the process. Power, as defined by McCarthy, is the ‘ability of one side to inflict more damage on the other than it receives in return.’

Fisher and Ury respond by saying that the outcome of a negotiation may be based on the amount of power a party has, but the outcome is also affected by many other things - location, interest, precedents, ideals. By including a large set of inputs and interests, they believe the solution will appear naturally because there are more contributors to the solution. It is a process that the authors claim as efficient. They argue that negotiating time is best spent exploring options, rather than encouraging the competitive division and animosity that accompanies positional bargaining.

I believe negotiation is more about communication than position. Fisher and Ury echo this when they say negotiation is a ‘communication designed to reach an agreement when you and the other side have some interests that are shared and others that are opposed.’ The real core of negotiating comes when you understand the interests of the opposite party as well as your own. Only then can significant progress can be made to a solution.

Definition of Outcome

Fisher and Ury see outcome in an open-ended way, where parties are diffuse and solutions are indeterminate. White and McCarthy are focused on outcome as a result of the process. Every step along the way predetermines a result. Outcomes can never be singled out as an independent event. Each outcome influences the ones that follow. However, it is still a process. In essence, both sides are correct, but are limited in seeing the after effects of the outcomes they reach.

Each side also claims the method it champions is harder, but more rewarding. Fisher and Ury say brainstorming is the more difficult part of negotiation. Plumbing one’s brain in order to expand it is not the typical way we approach things. They believe by going against one’s natural instinct, different relationships will magically occur, leading to solutions. It is a philosophy that asks us to go beyond tangible things, relationships that are clearly defined and accepted, to reinvent the wheel daily. Of course, we are afraid to do so. First, without established things, we cannot understand all the factors. We often focus on subsets, because of our inability to hold more than two concepts in our heads. Even worse, these two concepts are naturally divided into opposites. Whether it is black or white, labor or management, us or them - we find it difficult to go beyond these easily held structures of identification. Therefore, each side claims its method is better. But what is better? Fisher and Ury say that arguing over positions may well be a large part of a negotiation. They also claim that the negotiation would be a lot better is other things were included. White and McCarthy say that focusing on interests can help you find some common ground with your adversary. But, they also say interests do not help when it comes down to finally deciding the issue. Each side has a different interpretation of negotiation, but the terms they use to describe it are closed to the other side by their very nature. Their terms define their own answers.


In the end, both Fisher and Ury and on the other side, White and McCarthy speak two different languages. They both have different definitions and ways of viewing negotiation. This difference can be seen in the way both sets of authors describe how they view the book, Getting to Yes. McCarthy and White call it naive, and simplistic, a primer for students of negotiation that have not really learned to negotiate. They believe the book does not go far enough in prescribing the full picture of what a negotiation is. Fisher and Ury, however, did not mean for the book to tell one how to negotiate. In keeping with their philosophy, they hope their maxims can inspire negotiators in finding their own solutions. Descriptive and prescriptive processes are both needed in life. We are inspired by general truths while at the same time use pragmatic examples in real life. One cannot dispense of the other. Fisher and Ury and White and McCarthy are both needed to describe what one needs to do during a negotiation.

The only point of conflict stems from trying to judge which method is more efficient. Fisher claims principled negotiation is more efficient because it reduces. Yet, White and McCarthy would argue that principled negotiation does not even work when faced with the reality of negotiation. In the end, these two methods are not self-defeating. As a consequence, the solution conflict always turns on developing power in the relationship and using to your own advantage. It naturally makes the conflict a distributional argument, where two parties battle for a fixed pie.

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december 1999