You know the device I mean: a woven straw cylinder about five inches long, with openings at both ends just large enough for your two index fingers to be inserted—and trapped.

Remember the first time you ever experienced one of these? You tried to escape, but the harder you pulled, the tighter the stretched straw closed down on your little fingers. And then someone showed you the trick: the only way to get free is by pushing inward—moving counter to the direction in which escape seemed to lie.

This is exactly the secret of non-adversarial negotiating.

Instead of pulling toward our own self-interests and protecting ourselves, we instead push toward the other people and issues involved, seeking to really listen and understand them. Then, together, we can co-create a good solution to our problem. The more overlapping your interests are, the more ability you will have to co-create a solution that gives everyone what they need.

The problem with an adversarial approach is that it causes us to pull away from each other, and just like the finger puzzle, we get trapped.

It becomes harder and harder to really talk to each other or explore possible solutions.

I have often listened to both parties in a dispute tell me their story, only to quickly see that they didn’t even agree on what the problem was! How can you agree on a solution when you don’t agree on the problem? The key is talking to each other—and not at each other.

These seven principles of non-adversarial negotiating create the attitude and atmosphere required for people to talk to each other, hear what they need to hear, and then co-create a fair and practicable solution.

1) Refuse to Be an Adversary

This is fundamental to effective negotiation. When you become defensive, you lose any

opportunity to come up with a creative solution, because your mind will be only looking for ways to win. No matter what is sent your way, refuse to be drawn into taking a defensive mode.

2) Communicate from a Position of Power

When you work toward the common, long-term good, you automatically come from a position of power. Power comes from seeking to do what is right for both sides.

Look at it from a long-term point of view. Most negotiations are relational, not transactional. Rarely do we have one transaction and then walk away, never to be affected by it again. If you think you will never see this person again, you are probably wrong. Even if you don’t deal with the same person, you will likely deal with someone else whom they have talked to.

You are building a reputation. If your reputation is one of working toward the common good, people will give you great power and rise to help you.

3) Lead, Don’t Manipulate

Your integrity is the cornerstone of your negotiation. Taking a leadership role will help you move the process from a boxing match to a dance. Leadership here need not be based on actual authority, but can be assumed by anyone who seeks a solution that gives all the stakeholders what they need.

Leadership is not manipulation. Manipulation is taking an action to achieve influence that would be less effective if the other person knew your actual intentions. Leading is finding out what it will take to bring the parties into harmony.

4) Listen Between the Lines

Negotiations and conflicts are not usually about what people say they are; they have more to do with ego. Listen with empathy, between the lines, and you will hear people tell you what they truly need. Then, you’ll be able to create a solution to fulfill that need.

5) Act As If

Negotiations and conflicts are created and won or lost in our minds. William James said, “You don’t sing because you’re happy, you’re happy because you sing.” If we act in a manner that is consistent with what we want to have happen, it must eventually occur. This is the law of consistency: perception is reality.

6) Decide the Outcome Before

“Deciding the outcome before” means that you create in your mind what it is you want to have happen in any given negotiation before it actually occurs in external reality.

Look at your optimal, worst-case, and walk-away outcomes in order to understand the parameters of your negotiation. Understanding your objectives and those of the other side will help you know how to start and where to move in order to get your desired outcome.

7) Do the Impossible

Whether you believe you can, or believe you can’t, you’re right. Doing the impossible is based on keeping yourself open to possibilities. Expect a miracle. One definition of “miracle” is a change in perception.

This is what all of these principles are about. Try to look at old things in new ways, through new lenses. It usually is possible to create a solution that gives everyone what they need and walk away with a new level of respect and understanding.

Following these seven principles will allow you to negotiate solutions based on fairness —and preserve the long-term relationships involved. Your negotiation will be a path to understanding, not to war. As the world continues growing as one global economy and we become more and more interdependent, win/win or lose/lose become our only two options.

In this new century, pushing toward each other to find resolution to our problems is the only approach that makes sense.


SUE DYER is the first woman in the U.S. to head a major collective
bargaining unit for the construction industry. She is author of the
award-winning book,
Partner Your Project, and President
of OrgMetrics, a consulting firm specializing in non-adversarial
approaches to preventing and resolving disputes.