The Creative Negotiating

Creative negotiating is a quest for mutual-gain synergies—to match your assets to the other party’s needs, and vice versa. It takes more than a collaborative mindset; it’s an act of imagination. Creative negotiators unlock hidden opportunities to capture more total value in the deal. 

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Strategic Negotiating, Part V:


What I Didn’t Learn From Harvard


In 1981, around the time I got out of school and joined the Karrass organization, a book called Getting to Yes became an international bestseller. Written by Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project, it was a manifesto for the “win-win” school of “principled negotiation”—a stark contrast to the zero-sum techniques we taught at Karrass. 

Fisher and Uryunquestionably moved the field forward. To get to yes, negotiators were urged to:

• Invent new options, then decide; 

• “Focus on interests, not positions”; 

• Use and insist upon objective criteria;

• “Be soft on the people, hard on the problem.”

These are all sound ideas. But keep in mind that Ury is an anthropologist by training; Fisher was a law professor who helped mediate the Camp David summit and the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Whereas diplomatic talks routinely muddle on for years, most business deals involve considerably more urgency. Internal constraints add pressure; your counterpart uses leverage to add some more. If you’re a seller with a competitor who just made a low-ball offer, or a buyer struggling to keep pace with demand, you may be under the gun to close today.

Compete While You Collaborate

Fisher and Ury had one critical blind spot. They ignored a central element of anynegotiation—namely, power. In Getting to Yes, self-interest is the sand in the gears of “non-adversarial bargaining.” Conflict is counter-productive, something to be “managed” and “resolved” by an invisible hand: “[W]here your interests conflict, you should insist that the result be based on some fair standards independent of the will of either side.” [My emphasis added.] In this ideal world, two reasonable people lay their cards on the table, divulge their interests, find an understanding—and, voila! 

That’s our fundamental issue with the Harvard guys: They throw out the leverage with the bathwater. For better or worse, power counts. While twenty-first-century negotiating is indeed collaborative, you can’t wash the competition out of it. Even as we strive to expand the pie, we still compete for a bigger slice. In real life, “win-win” is often WIN-win or even—if one party is really skillful—WIN!-win. 

So where do we go from here? As I noted last time, Karrass-style power negotiating still works like a charm in basic bargaining—to protect your company’s interests, first and last. When the situation fits, there is nothing wrong with that. In deals with more complex, long-term implications, however, the old tools may not suffice for new problems.

Win-win can work, too, if you have the luxury of time and a like-minded person on the other side—though it’s not always so easy “to produce wise outcomes efficiently and amicably,” as Fisher and Ury put it. Applied too loosely, win-win can be dangerously subjective. If people are desperate enough going in, they might feel like they’ve won after giving away the store.(To be fair, Ury has acknowledged the importance of conflict in his later books, including Getting Past No.)

Dad’s Third Way 


But my main point is this: All negotiations are not the same. They take different paths, with different inflection points—or they may veer from one path to another in unpredictable ways. You might get every concession and still wind up with a terrible deal, because you beat up the other side and jeopardized the long-term relationship. On the other hand, you might choose to get less today in exchange for a more stable and lucrative arrangement down the pike.


With our decades of collective know-how, the Mobus Creative Negotiating team saw that contemporary businesspeople needed a new kind of training program. They needed a fusion of Karrass’s tactical practicality and the Harvard school’s strategic approach. Most of all, they required a range of negotiating skills for various situations. That insight became the seed of the Mobus Negotiating Continuum.

My father, the third-generation paving contractor, observed that most people negotiated in one of two ways. The first way was to hold fast to your position or cave in to the other side’s. The second way was to mechanically split the difference and settle somewhere in the middle. But my dad liked to look for a third way, a more challenging and imaginative way. When he couldn’t get the concessions he’d targeted, he’d find another avenue to take out cost or add value. He wouldn’t duck disagreements or shy away from using leverage, but he’d use it to make the deal better for both parties. 

We have a name for that third way. We call it Creative Conflict, the subject of my next installment. 




“Why Winning the Tactical Game is not Enough”



Our Mission

At Mobus Creative Negotiating, our mission is to show you how to find more profitable outcomes in deals large and small. We can help you improve your negotiation skills by gauging the other party’s pressures and needs—by turning a transaction into a strategic relationship. To learn more about our Creative Negotiating seminars, visit us at