4 Simple Steps to Principled Negotiation

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What is principled negotiation? And how will it help you get better deals with less conflict?

Principled negotiation is a negotiating tactic designed to generate fair agreements efficiently and civilly. Learn how to use principled negotiation and why you should.

The Benefits of Principled Negotiation

You don’t have to choose either aggressive or soft bargaining along with their attendant problems. In contrast to the traditional adversarial approach, principled negotiation (which can also be called negotiating on the merits) is a much better way to arrive at wise agreements in an efficient way.

Principled negotiation can be used in almost any circumstances and it’s straightforward: the two sides work toward agreed-upon mutual interests rather than having hidden agendas.

There are four components to principled negotiation:

  1. People: Separate personalities and emotions from the issue being negotiated.
  2. Interests: Focus on the interests of each side — the reasons underlying their positions — rather than on positions.
  3. Options: Come up with multiple options based on mutual interests.
  4. Criteria: Base the agreement on an objective (fair and independent) standard.

1. Separate Emotions from Issues

People get emotional, they have trouble communicating clearly, and their perceptions vary. How they feel gets mixed with what they think about the merits (facts) of an issue. They hold stubbornly to positions due to ego. When the other side makes concessions, it can reward this behavior.

Before negotiators can make headway on addressing the issues, they need to address people’s mindset and behavior. Both sides must see themselves as working together alongside each other, attacking a problem rather than each other. This is the first step of principled negotiation.

2. Talk about Interests Instead of Positions

You can overcome the flaws of positional bargaining when you focus on the underlying interests (what you both really want) that led to taking the positions. Because the negotiating positions that are taken often obscure these interests, compromising doesn’t generate an agreement that addresses the reasons people take the positions that they do. Figuring out what both sides really want is the second step of principled negotiation.

3. Generate Options Serving Mutual Interests

When negotiating under pressure, it’s hard to come up with great solutions serving both sides. It’s better for each side to set up a separate time to brainstorm creative solutions that address each side’s interests while accommodating differences. Another approach is for both sides to brainstorm together. Finding mutual interests is the third step of principled negotiation.

4. Use Objective Criteria

You can avoid arbitrary agreements by demanding that the results meet objective standards independent of either side — for instance, market values, legal standards, average salaries, expert opinions or data, or customary practices. Instead of arguing about what either side is willing to accept, agree to objective standards that will serve as the rationale for the specifics in the agreement. That way, neither party is imposing their say-so for what’s fair on the other. This is the fourth step of principled negotiation.

Stages of Principled Negotiation

Principled negotiation has three broad stages, and you deal with the four elements (people, interests, options, criteria) in each stage: analysis, planning, and discussion.

  • Analysis: In this stage, assess the situation. Gather, organize, and weigh information. Anticipate personality or emotional issues that might influence the process — for instance, feelings, biases, and communication styles or problems (the people element). Identify and list your interests and what you think the other side’s interests are (the interests element). Identify any options already on the table and any standards already suggested as a rationale.
  • Planning: In this stage, go through the four elements again. Decide what you’ll do about each people problem, what interests are your top priorities, and what your objectives are, as well as several options and potential criteria.
  • Discussion: In this stage, look toward agreement. Communicate with each other about potential human issues (for instance frustrations and perceptions on each side), identify common and differing interests, generate some mutually beneficial options, and agree on objective standards.

To sum up, in contrast to adversarial bargaining, practicing principled negotiation allows you to treat people with empathy, work toward a wise agreement that’s fair for both parties, negotiate efficiently without deliberate delays, and end the process on a positive note that bodes well for your future relationship.

4 Simple Steps to Principled Negotiation

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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