Getting To Yes: Our Angry Society Needs This 1981 Business Book

Successful negotiations separate the people from the problem. Developing a win-win solution requires identifying the shared problem and working on it together.

A current of discontent pulses through our society. We face an erosion of civility and an embrace of violent threats as legitimate ways to communicate.

A paradigm exists for resolving differences that has proven effective in negotiating some of the most intransigent conflicts in the world, including the apartheid-riven society in South Africa and a centuries-old border dispute between Ecuador and Peru.

Business leaders employ these techniques every day.

Corporate leaders know the late Roger Fisher and William Ury’s 1981 bestseller “Getting to Yes” as a business bible for closing the big deals. Yet at its core it teaches practical wisdom for resolving conflict.

Whether applied to business challenges, community disputes, or even armed conflicts, the principles developed back then to ‘get to yes’ – finding that win-win solution – give us powerful lessons for our anger-fueled society today.

The hope of ‘getting to yes’ might sound quaint given the brokenness that surrounds us. But the principles developed for “Getting to Yes” created a strategic and mature way to solve thorny problems together.

One of its fundamental axioms seems particularly urgent for people to understand and put into practice as we navigate the political polarization that plagues us.

Separate the People From the Problem

It’s a common assumption about negotiation that your approach is either “tough” or “nice.” Hard bargainers see the parties as adversaries. They take extreme positions, make threats, dig in, and aim to win a contest of wills. Soft bargainers hope the parties can be friends. They make concessions to protect the relationship, yield to pressure and give in to avoid conflict. Both approaches are fundamentally flawed.

“Getting to Yes” introduced a third style: being “hard on the problem” and “soft on the people.” It debunked the idea that people with different views – even strongly held views – need to treat one another aggressively.

Developing a win-win solution requires identifying the shared problem and working on it together. Negotiations break down when either party thinks the problem is the people on the other side. The “Getting to Yes” method reframes the negotiation by seeing the people in the room, regardless of their initial position, as resources to deploy together against the shared problem.

It’s Gotten Ugly Out There

A few moments spent on social media these days will expose you to a barrage of vicious name-calling and angry diatribe. One might shrug them off as just words with the “sticks and stones” childhood retort, but the more acceptable and entrenched the online behavior has become, the more it appears to creep into “in real life” society.

We have all seen the viral videos of beleaguered store employees harangued by customers who refuse to wear masks and school board meetings that devolve into profanity-laced shouting matches over required reading or Critical Race Theory.

And now we seem to have gone one step farther. Death threats and physical violence are becoming normalized as a way to say “I disagree with you” or “You make me angry.”

A hospital in Missouri outfitted healthcare workers with panic buttons after assaults by patients tripled from 2019 to 2020. Two men came to blows last month at a school board meeting in Glastonbury, Conn., to decide the fate of a school mascot and logo. In 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration received 5,338 reports of unruly airline passengers, including 3,856 mask-related incidents.

A protester screams at a Dutch police officer during a protest to denounce ongoing restrictions related to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic on Museumplein, Amsterdam on January 17, 2021. (Photo by ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN / ANP / AFP) / Netherlands OUT (Photo by ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

Nor is this a uniquely American problem. In the Netherlands, Belgium and elsewhere in Europe protests over reinstated COVID-19 restrictions have turned violent. In Rotterdam, protestors on Nov. 19 set fire to cars and threw stones at police, shocking local politicians.

“The center of our beautiful city has turned into a veritable war zone tonight,” a local political party wrote on Twitter. “Rotterdam is a city where we are allowed to disagree about issues, but violence is never, ever, the solution.”

All of this signals one thing: Too many of us believe that disagreeing with someone’s opinion, particularly if strongly held, means we owe that person no decency or civility.

Re-Learning How To Disagree

Our issues are prickly. They require the best thinking and best strategic tools we have – collectively. Threats won’t resolve them, nor will throwing punches or stones.

On the contrary, seeing your neighbors as personal enemies because they support outcomes with which you disagree is the jagged worldview that is unraveling the fabric of society.

When “Getting to Yes” co-author Roger Fisher engaged with the leaders of Ecuador and Peru to help them settle a border dispute that had roiled these South American neighbors for centuries, his first act was to stage a photo op. He placed the two leaders side by side, heads angled toward one another, perusing the same document. This simple tableau set the tone for the negotiation as an exercise in joint problem-solving: I’m not against you. I’m against the problem.

Reframing the negotiation created an opportunity to find a creative, win-win solution.

Perhaps you and your neighbor do stand on opposite sides of the proverbial fence when it comes to COVID-19 restrictions or appropriate books for the high school curriculum. Perhaps those views make you angry. If you can separate your animosity toward your neighbor from your goal of solving the problem — whether it’s protecting the community’s health while respecting personal freedom, or creating an honorable, inclusive, age-appropriate learning experience for your kids — we can literally put our heads together and increase our chances of finding the solution that feels like a win for everyone.

As we wrestle with the issues – large and small – that divide us as a society, it is imperative that we bring down the temperature of exchange and re-engage in dialogue by sitting side by side and looking at our problems together.


Published January 18, 2022 on

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