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Sun. Jul 14th, 2024

Conflict expert William Ury reveals the “cheapest concession you can make” negotiating

By Vaseline May26,2024

“Conflict has become a growth industry,” says author and educator William Ury. “The real question now is, how do we deal with it?” It’s a question Ury has been searching for answers to for over 40 years now, beginning with 1981’s groundbreaking “Getting to Yes” (coauthored with Roger Fisher), the perennial bestseller that set the template for modern negotiation technique.

Now, several decades, books and successful corporate and political negotiations later, Ury is back with a fresh perspective on how to manage the conflicts in lives, from thorny work situations to day-to-day disputes with our family members. Describing himself as a “possibilist,” Ury explains in his new book “Possible: How We Survive (and Thrive) In an Age of Conflict” why we should lean in to conflict rather than avoid it, and how to achieve more by sometimes saying less.

It’s a refreshingly humane, common sense approach that takes the pressure of “win-lose” out of our most potentially fraught interactions, compelling enough that President Biden was recently spotted conspicuously carrying a copy. Speaking with Salon recently, Ury revealed why we need to go “the balcony” before getting heated, and what’s beyond even the “win-win.”

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

“Not only is conflict natural, but conflict is surging.”

Tell me why we need to rethink our understanding of conflict. 

There’s a general popular connotation of conflict like a bad thing. The reason why I’m proposing to people that we rethink that is because I think in today’s time, not only is conflict natural, but conflict is surging. Conflict has become a growth industry. And we’re not going to end it. In fact, it seems like all the trends are for increasing, because the more change in the world, the more conflict. The more disruption in the world, the more conflict. The more social media algorithms promote engagement through conflict, the more conflict we’re going to perceive.

To me, the real question now is, how do we deal with it? How do we navigate it? And I want for us to really see our agency, that we have a choice. A lot of people think we don’t have a choice, that’s the way things are. In fact, what I’ve just found in my whole life, is people do have a choice. We can rescue our agency here. We may not be able to end conflict, nor should we. With all the injustice in the world, all the changes that need to be made, we’re going to have to engage our differences. It’s going to take creative friction to get to better solutions that will result from people speaking up. 

We think of conflict often as very male-centric. I wonder how you see that changing over time in our global and domestic lives as well, because this is a book that is about the world, but also about our families and about our relationships.

Women are natural third siders. They’ve been playing that role informally for eons. In organizations, there are male egos which get in the way of getting things done. In the world of politics, I deal with what I call “the ME problem,” the male ego. I’m not saying women don’t have egos, but it’s just different. There are anthropological studies about women that show they tend to be more relational. They’re less likely to say, “Who’s winning this? Am I on top?” Which is, in today’s interdependent world, not that effective. Because when you take that kind of win-lose and apply that in your marriage, your marriage is going to be a serious difficulty. 

If you bring that mentality to an interdependent world, you’re not going to advance nearly as far as you could if you said, “Okay, how do we both solve this problem? How do we get your needs and my needs (met)?” 

People are always talking about win-win. For me, what’s very important is the third win — the win for the whole, the win for the culture, the society, the family, the team. That actually needs to be understood, because it’s not just win-win, it’s a win-win-win. The third win is is critical. That’s why such an important part of that book is what I call the third side, which is gets activated because it’s for the benefit of the larger whole. 

Let’s talk about that third side. When you’re looking at problem solving, what you’re talking about in this book again and again is you, me and the problem or you, me and the solution. The first concept you introduce is about taking time. The way you describe it is “going to the balcony,” which for you, is mental. But it can also literally be physical. 

Everything is so reactive, and we’re driven to make a decision, have a reaction, respond immediately. Whether it’s in a work environment, or whether it’s with a person that we have a conflict with, everything escalates immediately. How do we get to the balcony, especially when there’s not a lot of incentive?

This is why we need to build in “the balcony.” The balcony can be a place. Switzerland, for example, it’s been historically a balcony. Camp David has served as a balcony. Places where people can get away for a moment, calm their nervous systems, getting out in nature. I’m a big walker in nature, because nature is a natural balcony. Meditation is a natural balcony. Otherwise, the reactive mechanisms that were evolved to deal with running away from a sabre-toothed tiger or whatever it was. They don’t serve as well when we’re dealing with another human being.

We have our prefrontal cortex for a reason, which is to slow down, inhibit a little bit. Those balcony skills need to be learned by kids fairly early on, because the environment is getting more and more reactive, and we need to counterbalance it. But we can be creative. I ask people, “What’s your favorite way to go into balcony?” It’s amazing, the number of things that people give me, if we can integrate it and actually build in time for silence, time for breaks. Even with meetings, just break them up and give yourself a chance to think. 

“When angry, you’ll send the best text you’ll ever regret.”

We think of negotiation, conflict resolution as goal-oriented behavior. People are trying to get an objective. In fact, what happens is, our reactions make us act in ways that go exactly contrary to our own interests. As that saying goes, when angry, you will make the best speech you’ll ever regret. When angry, you’ll send the best email you’ll ever regret, the best text you’ll ever regret. 

It might just be building in a few seconds of silence, a little bit of pausing, can make a huge difference. I cite in the book this MIT colleague, Jared Curhan. He took his students and taped negotiations. He counted the amount of silence in the conversation, and the degree of cooperativeness to the outcome. And guess what, there’s a correlation.

One of the interesting things about this book is thinking about dealing with inequitable dynamics, and someone else in the room has much more power than you. It feels very scary to be quiet then. What happens when we’re in that dynamic, where it’s not two partners coming up the table? 

Where there’s a power inequity, which often is the case, that’s all the more reason for you to go to the balcony. You get a chance to really think, what do I really need here? I’ve got to bring my best, highest potential self to this, because I’m going have to find a way to level the playing field, even situationally. There’s a confident pause. But also, on the balcony, you look at your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement), because the stronger my walkaway option, the stronger my Plan B, I’m going to have more confidence and I’m going to have a little more power in that negotiation.

On the balcony, one of the things you ask yourself is what you can do to equalize the power. And that will lead you straight to the third side, which is, can you build a coalition? You (alone) may not have as much power, but who are your allies? Where do you build that winning coalition that can level the playing field so that you can have a fair and equitable negotiation? That’s something that you do by going to the balcony, looking around and seeing. People often just look at an interaction, they just see the two people. But there’s that community around you which is a kind of an untapped resource to say, “Who can either be on my side or at least can be neutral? Who can hold set some ground rules here, so I can’t be steamrollered by someone with superior power or authority?”

One of the foundations of negotiation is positions and interests. It comes down to the why. As you put it, that means you keep asking that of the other side, but also keep asking you of yourself, “Why am I here? Why do I care about getting a raise? Why do I care about that person who cut me off in traffic?” When you’re exploring the why, how do you get to that with yourself?

In the book, I gave an example where I was meeting in Paris, and the guy said, “Why are you here?” I said, “La vie est trop courte.” (Life is too short.) This was a colossal fight between these two giant tycoons. It was affecting their families, employees of the company, even their societies, That morning, before the lunch, I went for a walk and I saw an installation of Chinese art, of these giant Buddhas playing in the sky.

That was a reset: Okay, so this is life, so what are we doing scrapping here? For what? Suddenly, it really got reframed as helping our friends resolve their problem, rather than representing our friends as gladiators. Just underneath the positions, you get to the interest — the real interest — not just the financial interest, but what people really wanted. It turned out to be a win for both sides, but more importantly, a win for their families and the community. 

Northern Ireland is a great example in which sometimes impossible causes and impossible conflicts do get resolved. But history also shows us what happens when we dehumanize, depersonalize. You say early on in the book that you have never seen anything like this in your lifetime. We are suffering as entities, and we are suffering is individuals. This book is also ultimately about suffering.

It is. It’s about how we deal with suffering. How do we prevent future suffering? How do we heal suffering? To go back to Northern Ireland, who could have imagined that Martin McGuinness, the head of the IRA, and Ian Paisley, who was the biggest firebrand, would actually almost become friends working together? 

The first time I met Martin McGuinness, just after the Good Friday accord, he said to me, “People have been giving me your book ‘Getting Yes’ for years. I must have five copies on my shelf. Now I’m going around telling people how we did it over in Ireland.” He’d become a kind of a proselytizer for conflict resolution, so go figure what’s possible. 

Go back to the first half of the 20th century. World War I breaks out and then, 20 years later, World War II, and then the menace of a nuclear war. Is this time worse than that? In terms of suffering, tens of millions of people were dying in wars. You just have to put that in perspective. What’s new here is that there are so many crises happening simultaneously. There’s what the French call a polycrisis, which is, there’s the environmental crisis, there’s the political domestic polarization crisis, there’s the war in Ukraine, now there’s AI coming through, threatening job stability. Everything is happening so fast and so furious, which is, which is why we need to cultivate kind of resiliency. And what can give us resiliency, but the way in which we deal with these things? 

Speaking as if I put on my hat as a Martian anthropologist for a moment, looking at this species, the truth is, there’s no problem that we’re facing that we couldn’t address if only we can work together. It’s not like we’re dealing with typhoons, or an asteroid from outside. These are human-made problems. We’re incredibly inventive and adaptive, and we learn. Now we are learning about conflict.

We often learn the hard way, but we are we are learning. When I was young, everyone thought there was going to be a nuclear war between United States and the Soviet Union. We came very close to it in the Cuban Missile Crisis and other crises. But it didn’t happen for a whole variety of reasons. That’s why when people ask me if I’m an optimist or a pessimist, I say I’m a possiblist. It’s looking at the negative possibilities but then you look for where the positive possibilities are. The truth is, there’s a lot more agency here than we give ourselves credit for. That’s what I’m trying to wake people up to. You don’t need magic. You just need to unlock our own natural human potential that’s inside of all of us. 

When we walk into a situation where we’re trying to have a conversation about a conflict, that may be scary. How do you claim agency for yourself and what best outcome you might be?

One is the power that you have to influence yourself and go to the balcony, look at who your potential allies could be. Just really understand what your why is. You also have what I would call your inner BATNA. In the situation, whatever happens to me, what’s most important to me is within my zone of control. I can control my attitude. That then removes the other side’s ability to manipulate you because what most people want in the end is some kind of happiness. Well, who can give you happiness? Happiness, as we know, is manufactured within us. What’s wonderful about that, as you take that in, is then you don’t give the power to the other side. The other side doesn’t decide doesn’t get to decide what matters most to you. 

I would also say, what people also want is to be seen. What you’re talking about and writing about is how when you give that to someone, it changes the whole game. It changes everything. When you walk into a room and you show respect, and you listen, that is I think the most powerful thing you can do.

Absolutely right. The thing is, people think, “Why should I respect that person?” It’s that you’re tapping into that indivisible dignity that every human being shares, no matter who they are, what they are. When you do that, then you actually are more likely to receive it too as a result. And it’s coming from self-respect. That’s a sign of strength. If you want to actually try and influence someone, then show them a little bit of respect. It’s the cheapest concession you can make. 

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