Separating the People from the Problems

In part two of this eight-part series, I continue to discuss the classic text, “Getting to Yes, Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,” and focus on the issue of separating the people from the problem.

The truth is, every negotiation involves people, and each person comes to the negotiation table with their own emotions, values, backgrounds, viewpoints and life stories. Often times, people involved in negotiation become so personally ingrained in their own interests and positions that they oftentimes fail to separate the people from the issues. This results in each side feeling attacked, and causes their responses to be defensive rather than constructive.


Separating the people from the problem requires negotiators to understand that each party has a different perception of the issues; each party must not allow emotions to play a role in the process; and each party must learn to better communicate and listen.

In Chapter 2 of Getting to Yes, the authors stress the need to prevent people problems by building a working relationship with the other side. Tackle the problem as partners who are tasked with creating a win-win solution for both sides and search together for fair agreement. Invariably, this may not be possible, so the authors provide various techniques of dealing with problems related to perceptions, emotions and communication.

Dealing With People Problems

  1. First, you must understand that perceptions control the other side’s response and attitude in a negotiation. As such, the most important negotiation skill is your ability to put yourself in the shoes of the other party. You must feel the emotional force of the other side’s argument and truly try to understand what (s)he believes or perceives.  It is imperative to discuss and diffuse these perceptions and try to find an opportunity to act inconsistently with what you believe the other side will expect from you. Do not cast blame or attack the other side; they will become defensive and will resist listening to anything you say. Rather, use positive wording and offer suggestions as to how you can find solutions. A successful negotiator will empower the other side to have a stake in the outcome so that they feel ownership in the process of finding a solution.

  2. Second, beware of the other side’s emotions as well as your own. It may be helpful to write down your emotions (how you feel) and ask yourself what is producing this feeling. Remember, emotions are irrefutable (as opposed to facts, which are refutable). No one can argue about how you feel. Equally as important is to allow the other side to let off steam and validate their strong feelings. Do not react to emotional outbursts. If possible, use symbolic gestures to show you care or listened (e.g., an expression of sympathy, an apology, or shaking hands can diffuse strong emotions).

  3. Third, work hard to limit communication problems. This requires actively listening to the other side without thinking about how you are framing your counter-argument. Ask questions such as, “Did I hear you correctly” as this will avoid any miscommunication mishaps. Negotiation is not a debate. You will not persuade the other side to adopt your position or agree that your interests are more important than theirs. Speak about yourself without condemning the other side and describe the problem as it impacts you. When speaking, do your best to prevent provoking a defensive reaction. Finally, speak with purpose and do not feel the need to disclose everything about which you are thinking. Ask yourself, “What purpose will disclosure serve?”

In our next article, we will explore the authors’ techniques of focusing on your interests rather than on your position.

Click here to download a mind map summary of Chapter 2, Getting to Yes.

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