Fisher, Ury, and Patton’s “Getting to Yes”: Book Review, Notes + Analysis

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > Business

Overall Rating: ★★★★★ (5/7) (solid for its category)

Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★ (5/7)

Readability: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)

Challenge Level: 1/5 (None) | ~200 pages in the core book (240 official)

Blurb/Description: Based on the work of the Harvard Negotiation Project, Getting to Yes is “the” book on effective negotiation that leaves both parties better off.

Summary: Getting to Yes is a solid book that thoughtfully integrates (implicitly) a lot of “ mental models” like schemalocal vs. global optimization, and humans vs. econs into a useful discussion of how to most effectively reach win-win solutions when conflict arises.  Although the book is primarily oriented toward business or professional situations, there is some applicability to personal situations as well.

Highlights: The book is very concise, practical, and applicable, yet it isn’t facile and provides a very thoughtful treatment of a lot of important issues.

Lowlights: There aren’t really any big flaws in the book, from my perspective.  I do think the authors overstate the ease or applicability of certain techniques – particularly in more personal negotiations, I think there are rarely applicable “objective standards” – for example, in a common household situation of, say, cleaning, how do you set an objective standard, for example, for the definition of whether a room is sufficiently neat? – whether a room is messy or clean is an inherently subjective gradient where what looks spick and span to one person might be an intolerable pigsty to another.

Mental Model / ART Thinking Points:  Zero sum vs. win-win games, humans vs. econsincentives,utilityconsistency biasempathydisaggregationschemaproduct vs. packagingagency, intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, reason-respecting tendency, sunk costs, marginal utilitymulticausality, a/b testing, hyperbolic discountinglocal vs. global optimization

You should buy a copy of Getting to Yes if: you want to more effectively stand up for your own interests in both personal and professional situations… or if you’re just in the market for a car.

Reading Tips: Don’t skip the introductory sections / forewords – I found them to be helpful context.

Pairs Well With:


Carnegie’s “ How to Win Friends and Influence People” ( HWFIP review + notes) – the classic, if somewhat Pollyannaish, book on how to become liked and respected enough to influence people’s decisions.

Stephen Covey’s “ The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People ( 7H review + notes) – a much deeper exploration of win-win thinking, among other topics

Robert Cialdini’s Influence – for the darker side of influence tactics (a nice complement to the “dirty tricks” chapter in Getting to Yes)

Reread Value: 4/5 (High)

More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):

IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK.  Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive.  It was primarily created for my own personal reference.

Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference.  Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.”  Do so at your own peril.

I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases.  First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.  

Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall.  However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.

Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made.  I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning.  Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.

Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.

Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.

Pages xiii: – xiv: the premise of the book is “not to eliminate conflict but rather to:

“change the way we deal with our differences – from destructive, adversarial battling to hard-headed, side-by-side problem-solving.”  

I.e., transforming negotiation from a zero-sum to a  win-win game. The authors admit it isn’t easy.  The book also focuses on brevity rather than comprehensiveness.

Page xv: humans vs. econs: “negotiators are people first.”  One of the book’s real strengths is considering the “soft” side of negotiation.

Page xxvii – xxviii: We’re all negotiating all the time, essentially; many of us view ourselves stuck between “soft or hard” – conflict avoidance or winning at all costs.  I’m probably in the former camp, and the authors are definitely right that I “want an amicable resolution, yet often ends up exploited and feeling bitter.”  

So my goal with this book was to learn how to be less naive without turning into someone cold and heartless.

Pages 4 – 7: the core of the approach is focusing on interests (in some sense, incentives) rather than positions: as demonstrated by the example of farmers and oil men who could both use the same land for different purposes, there may be a “ win-win” solution that provides both parties with what they really need, rather than with what they say they want (remember that positions are just a proxy for interests).  See also Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (7H review + notes), which references GTY at one point.

Later, the book brings up the good point that it is in fact the differences in interests – i.e. different utility functions – that lead to mutual gain – it’s the foundation of capitalism (I have something that is worth more to you than it is to me, and vice versa, so we can trade.)

The challenge with focusing on positions is that it draws lots of psychological effects into play: consistency bias, etc.  The authors discuss later how to deal with these.

Pages 9 – 10: as referenced, “traditional” negotiation can be “soft” or “hard.”  Both have their pitfalls.  Similar to the one part of The Moral Animal I actually liked where it discusses the potential of multiple equilibrium strategies and how you can get locked into an environment where the only answer is bloodshed (I’m paraphrasing heavily), the authors of Getting to Yes note that

“in positional bargaining, a hard game dominates a soft one.”  

Pages 12 – 13: a summary of the “principled negotiation” approach, which:

Separates the people from the problem

Focuses on interests, not positions

Invents options for mutual gain (a la Covey win-win)

Insists on using objective criteria (this, to me, is the weakest point, because there often aren’t any objective criteria for the toughest negotiations, especially the personal ones)

Page 20 – 21: a good review of some basic but important humans vs econs insights: the “other side” isn’t abstract – they’re human beings with the same challenges as us.  The authors emphasize the importance of dealing with the human side of things: failing to do so can “be disastrous for a negotiation.”  i.e.  empathy

Page 22: one important issue (much harder said than done of course) is that:

“the parties’ relationship tends to become entangled with their discussions of substance.  On both the giving and receiving end, we are likely to treat people and problem as one.”  

Not doing so is an example of disaggregation.  The authors reference schema and the importance of being aware of our own (and others’) viewpoints.

Pages 24 – 26: more good perspective on schema and perception:

“conflict lies not in objective reality, but in people’s heads […] fears, even if ill-founded, are real fears and need to be dealt with.”  

The book discusses schema and confirmation bias (implicitly) and recommends “trying on” their views; page 26 provides a nice tabular example of how a tenant and landlord’s perceptions on the exact same issue can vary.

Page 27: the book recommends not blaming others for your problems, but this isn’t a Colbert or Covey “use your agency” directive.  Instead, they’re simply recommending presenting the facts in a neutral tone without loaded words or value judgments: not “your workers aren’t doing their jobs” but rather “the containers are not being unloaded at the scheduled times.”  (My phrasing, not the book’s.)  An example of  product vs. packaging.

Page 28: back to schema and empathy – issues that seem unimportant or trivial to you can be meaningful to other people – and it’s not in your interest to downplay these issues.

Page 29: when people get to participate in a process, they’re happier with the outcome.  this is a function of  agency… it also fits into intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation

Pages 32-33: the book provides an interesting framework for some of the major emotional interests that play into negotiations: autonomy, appreciation, affiliation, role/purpose, and status.  The book also discusses the role of identity, as well as the need to proactively bring up emotions.

Pages 34 – 35: listening to attacks without responding, and letting people vent, can be helpful.  Symbolic gestures can also punch above their weight.

Pages 35 – 37: the book discusses empathic listening (see also Covey, Carnegie) and the “playback” method to make sure you understand what they’re saying.  (i.e., “Let me play that back to you:” – my words, not book’s, but same concept.)

Pages 38 – 39: some more good examples of how to convey information in an appropriate and value-neutral way.  Also build relationships; on page 40, the book references the ingenious Franklin technique of borrowing a book.

Pages 40 – 41: on the importance of building a relationship and (literally) sitting on the same side

Page 50: the book notes on  incentives that “the most powerful interests are basic human needs” like security, autonomy/control, and a sense of belonging – something that I think businesspeople and investors, overly focused on tangible forms of compensation, often tend to forget

Page 51: the book recommends listing the interests of each side; I would add, perhaps make a checklist of various human needs or frequent concerns that might apply in the situation, and go down them to see which ones are in fact relevant?

Pages 52 – 54: be specific, be objective, use neutral phrasing like “correct me if I’m wrong,” acknowledge their interests, and discuss the problem before the solution.  Empathy).  Also talk about reasons (reason-respecting tendency), and focus on looking forward, not litigating the past (marginal utility rather than  sunk costs)

Pages 60 – 61: a discussion about the dangers of viewing things as zero-sum games or searching for a “single best solution.”   multicausality.

Page 63: some nice tips on brainstorming, including making it informal, doing it in a different environment, sitting side by side, and not criticizing

Pages 69 – 70: some practical advice on how to systematically identify potential options

Pages 71 – 72: using “trials” or weaker forms of agreements (“let’s see how it goes”) can be helpful… kinda like a/b testing

Pages 72 – 73: some nice discussion on shared interests

Page 75: using the analogy of using an orange rind for baking and the flesh for eating, the book discusses how differing interests can create opportunities for synergy – it’s a foundational principle of capitalism and something we all know, but it’s a nice practical reminder

Page 90: on the dangers of ideology“one standard of legitimacy does not preclude the existence of others” – practical differences can escalate into ideological commitments

Page 92: “never yield to pressure”

Pages 94 – 95: read these next time you’re dealing with an insurance adjuster, or maybe even a car salesman

Page 99: the book addresses the concept of a “BATNA” – a “best alternative to negotiated agreement” – the book implicitly references hyperbolic discounting, i.e., When you are trying to catch an airplane your goal may seem tremendously important; looking back on it, you see you could have caught the next plane.”  

So easy to say, so hard to do!

Pages 102 – 103: some thoughtful commentary on being aware of what exactly your alternatives are.  If you’re unrealistically optimistic about your alternatives, you may turn down the best deal you’re gonna get; if you’re unrealistically pessimistic, you may accept a bad deal.

Page 111: a reminder to look behind positions to interests

Pages 112 – 114: take ridiculous propositions to their logical ends (in a neutral way); be open to criticism and advice, and reframe personal attacks as attacks on the problem.  Also, ask questions and stay silent when necessary.  These are probably great pages to reread every so often.

Pages 116 – 119: the “one text” model is interesting; you can start it yourself without anyone’s consent by “simply prepar[ing] a draft and ask[ing] for criticism.”

Pages 119 – 130: a good practical exampleto reread every so often

Page 131: one dirty trick is agreeing to stuff, then raising demands

Page 133: in general, bringing dirty tactics up for discussion can help get rid of them

Page 134: not explicitly in the book, but I guess one good lesson is to always have a good BATNA

Page 135: relevant in situations where you’re representatives (note – this whole chapter is probably good reading before buying a car!)

Pages 164 – 165: some interesting discussion of the “should we negotiate with terrorists” question


First Read: early 2018

Last Read: early 2018

Number of Times Read: 1


Review Date: early 2018

Notes Date: early 2018