Category: Learning

How To Mentally Overachieve — Charles Darwin’s Reflections On His Own Mind

We’ve written quite a bit about the marvelous British naturalist Charles Darwin, who with his Origin of Species created perhaps the most intense intellectual debate in human history, one which continues up to this day.

Darwin’s Origin was a courageous and detailed thought piece on the nature and development of biological species. It's the starting point for nearly all of modern biology.

But, as we’ve noted before, Darwin was not a man of pure IQ. He was not Issac Newton, or Richard Feynman, or Albert Einstein — breezing through complex mathematical physics at a young age.

Charlie Munger thinks Darwin would have placed somewhere in the middle of a good private high school class. He was also in notoriously bad health for most of his adult life and, by his son’s estimation, a terrible sleeper. He really only worked a few hours a day in the many years leading up to the Origin of Species.

Yet his “thinking work” outclassed almost everyone. An incredible story.

In his autobiography, Darwin reflected on this peculiar state of affairs. What was he good at that led to the result? What was he so weak at? Why did he achieve better thinking outcomes? As he put it, his goal was to:

“Try to analyse the mental qualities and the conditions on which my success has depended; though I am aware that no man can do this correctly.”

In studying Darwin ourselves, we hope to better appreciate our own strengths and weaknesses and, not to mention understand the working methods of a “mental overachiever.

Let's explore what Darwin saw in himself.

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1. He did not have a quick intellect or an ability to follow long, complex, or mathematical reasoning. He may have been a bit hard on himself, but Darwin realized that he wasn't a “5 second insight” type of guy (and let's face it, most of us aren't). His life also proves how little that trait matters if you're aware of it and counter-weight it with other methods.

I have no great quickness of apprehension or wit which is so remarkable in some clever men, for instance, Huxley. I am therefore a poor critic: a paper or book, when first read, generally excites my admiration, and it is only after considerable reflection that I perceive the weak points. My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; and therefore I could never have succeeded with metaphysics or mathematics. My memory is extensive, yet hazy: it suffices to make me cautious by vaguely telling me that I have observed or read something opposed to the conclusion which I am drawing, or on the other hand in favour of it; and after a time I can generally recollect where to search for my authority. So poor in one sense is my memory, that I have never been able to remember for more than a few days a single date or a line of poetry.

2. He did not feel easily able to write clearly and concisely. He compensated by getting things down quickly and then coming back to them later, thinking them through again and again. Slow, methodical….and ridiculously effective: For those who haven't read it, the Origin of Species is extremely readable and clear, even now, 150 years later.

I have as much difficulty as ever in expressing myself clearly and concisely; and this difficulty has caused me a very great loss of time; but it has had the compensating advantage of forcing me to think long and intently about every sentence, and thus I have been led to see errors in reasoning and in my own observations or those of others.

There seems to be a sort of fatality in my mind leading me to put at first my statement or proposition in a wrong or awkward form. Formerly I used to think about my sentences before writing them down; but for several years I have found that it saves time to scribble in a vile hand whole pages as quickly as I possibly can, contracting half the words; and then correct deliberately. Sentences thus scribbled down are often better ones than I could have written deliberately.

3. He forced himself to be an incredibly effective and organized collector of information. Darwin's system of reading and indexing facts in large portfolios is worth emulating, as is the habit of taking down conflicting ideas immediately.

As in several of my books facts observed by others have been very extensively used, and as I have always had several quite distinct subjects in hand at the same time, I may mention that I keep from thirty to forty large portfolios, in cabinets with labelled shelves, into which I can at once put a detached reference or memorandum. I have bought many books, and at their ends I make an index of all the facts that concern my work; or, if the book is not my own, write out a separate abstract, and of such abstracts I have a large drawer full. Before beginning on any subject I look to all the short indexes and make a general and classified index, and by taking the one or more proper portfolios I have all the information collected during my life ready for use.

4. He had possibly the most valuable trait in any sort of thinker: A passionate interest in understanding reality and putting it in useful order in his headThis “Reality Orientation” is hard to measure and certainly does not show up on IQ tests, but probably determines, to some extent, success in life.

On the favourable side of the balance, I think that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully. My industry has been nearly as great as it could have been in the observation and collection of facts. What is far more important, my love of natural science has been steady and ardent.

This pure love has, however, been much aided by the ambition to be esteemed by my fellow naturalists. From my early youth I have had the strongest desire to understand or explain whatever I observed,–that is, to group all facts under some general laws. These causes combined have given me the patience to reflect or ponder for any number of years over any unexplained problem. As far as I can judge, I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men. I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.

Indeed, I have had no choice but to act in this manner, for with the exception of the Coral Reefs, I cannot remember a single first-formed hypothesis which had not after a time to be given up or greatly modified. This has naturally led me to distrust greatly deductive reasoning in the mixed sciences. On the other hand, I am not very sceptical—a frame of mind which I believe to be injurious to the progress of science. A good deal of scepticism in a scientific man is advisable to avoid much loss of time, but I have met with not a few men, who, I feel sure, have often thus been deterred from experiment or observations, which would have proved directly or indirectly serviceable.

[…]

Therefore my success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions. Of these, the most important have been—the love of science—unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject—industry in observing and collecting facts—and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense.

5. Most inspirational to us of average intellect, he outperformed his own mental aptitude with these good habits, surprising even himself with the results.

With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points.

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Still Interested? Read his autobiography, his The Origin of Species, or check out David Quammen's wonderful short biography of the most important period of Darwin's life. Also, if you missed it, check out our prior post on Darwin's Golden Rule.

At Some Point, You Have to Eat The Broccoli

It's a wonderful idea to try to find a set of systems and principles that “work better” for big swaths of your life. Better habits, better mental tendencies, better methods of inquiry, and so on. We're strong advocates of this approach, believing that good thinking and good decision making can be learned the same as a good golf swing can: Through practice and instruction.

So, read the below with this caveat in mind: Constant learning and self-improvement can and must be done for great life results.

Now, with that out of the way.

The problem with the search for self-improvement methods, including the kind of multidisciplinary thinking we espouse, is that many, perhaps most of them, are a snare and a delusion for most people. And there's a simple reason why: They won't actually do it. 

Think about it. Isn't that the most common result? That you don't do it?

For example, we heard from many people after we wrote a piece late last year on Reading 25 Pages a Day, a little practice that we think would benefit almost anyone in creating a very desirable reading habit.

What we suspect, though, is that even of the subset of people who felt so strongly about the idea that they contacted us, only a minority of them followed through and maintained to the habit to this day, ten months later.

Why is that? A huge part of it is Homeostasis: The basic self-regulating feedback loops that keep us repeating the same habits over and over. Predictable forces that keep us from changing ourselves, just as some forces keep us from changing organizations. (Or any self-regulating system.)

The failure to follow new systems and habits (mental or physical) follows this basic formula:

  1. A system is proposed which makes the adherent think that they can live life a healthy life “without eating any broccoli.” (Whether intended by the author or not.) You see this over and over: Money-making schemes, exercise-habit formation routines, 4-hour workweek promises, new cultural principles for businesses, and so on. Promises that lead people to think “healthy eating with no broccoli,” so to speak. An easy fix.
  2. Potential adherent to the “broccoli-free” system buys into the paradigm, and starts giving it a try.
  3. Potential adherent realizes very quickly that either (A) The broccoli must, indeed, be eaten, or (B) The system does not work.

Now, with regards to the 25-pages a day “system” we outlined, we were careful not to make a “no broccoli” promise: All we said was that reading 25 pages per day was a habit that almost anyone could form, and that it would lead them far. But you still have to do all the reading. You have to do the thing. That's the part where everyone falls away.

We suspect that some people thought it would be easy to read 25 pages per day. That the pages would essentially “read themselves”, or that the time to do so would spontaneously free up, just because they starting wanting it.

This is never, ever the case. At some point, to be healthy, you do need to suck it up and eat some broccoli! And for many days in a row. Or, more to the point: The “failure point” with any new system; any method of improvement; any proposed solution to a life problem or an organization problem, is when the homeostatic regulation kicks in, when we realize some part of it will be hard, new, or unnatural.

Even a really well-designed system can only cut up the broccoli into little pieces and sneak it into your mac-and-cheese. A popular examples would be a fitness system whereby you do one pushup a day, then two pushups the second day, then three the third day, and so on. It makes the habit digestible at first, as you get used to it. This is plenty smart.

But eventually, if you're going to hang on to that habit, you'll have to do a whole lot of pushups every day! You can't just go back to plain mac-and-cheese, no broccoli. When the newness of the “one day at a time” system wears off, you'll be left with a heaping portion of broccoli. Will you continue eating it?

The point is this: When you're evaluating a proposed improvement to your life or to your organization, you must figure out when and where the broccoli will get eaten, and understand that you will have to sacrifice something (even if it's just comfort) to get what you want. And if anyone ever promises you “no broccoli,” it's probably a sham.

Remember that anything really worth doing is probably hard work, and will absolutely require you to do things you don't currently do, which will feel uncomfortable for a while. This is a “hard truth” we must all face. If it was easy, everyone would already be doing it. 

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Let's take the example of learning how to give better feedback. What could be a more useful skill? But actually doing so, actually following through with the idea, is not at all easy. You have to overcome your natural impulse to criticize. You have to get over your natural ego. You have to be very careful to watch your words, trying to decipher what will be heard when you deliver feedback. All of these are hard things to do, all of them unnatural. All will require some re-doubling to accomplish.

Thus, most people won't actually do it. This an Iron Rule of life: Biological systems tend towards what is comfortable. (Yes, human beings are “biological systems”.)

But this Iron Rule is a problem and an opportunity wrapped together. As the saying goes, “If you do what everyone else does, you'll get what everyone else gets.” If you can recognize that all things worth doing are hard at first, and that there is always some broccoli to be eaten, you are part of the way toward true advantageous differentiation. The rest is self-discipline.

We “go back” on our habits when they aren't truly formed yet. We think we’re there, but we’re really not — we’ve just been fooled by our sensory apparatus.

And the real and comforting truth is that you might really start liking, and even get used to eating, broccoli. Eating potato chips and candy will eventually feel like the uncomfortable and unnatural thing.

And that's when you know you've really got a great new discipline: Going back would feel like cutting off your hands.

Ken Iverson: The Cure for the Common MBA

We've written before about the legendary businessman Ken Iverson, the former CEO of Nucor Steel, who took it from a tiny steel operation to a true steel powerhouse in his own lifetime.

To recap, in Iverson's tenure, Nucor:

  • Compounded its per-share profits at 17% per annum for over 30 years, in a dying industry (steel production) even while foreign steelmakers competed hard and with lower per-hour labor costs, severely harming most U.S. steel producers.
  • Engineered the lowest per ton of steel labor cost despite paying the highest wages.
  • Did not lay off any employees or close any facilities in his long tenure. (In the steel business!)

And so on. He was incredible.

His short business memoir, Plain Talk, describes a much different kind of company than most; one where a culture of teamwork and group winning trumped personal fiefdom. He also got the incentives right. Boy did it ever work.

Turns out Iverson had some thoughts on business education as well.

What are we really missing?

In his recommended curriculum, Iverson highlights just how different his thoughts are: No classes on grand strategy (Henry Singleton would agree), or sales, or marketing, or financial structuring. (Not that those can't be useful. Just not enough.)

His idea? Teach aspiring managers how to truly interact with, understand, and lead the people who work for them by forcing young MBAs to take on an “internship” as a leader similar to the way doctors take up residence before being given the full leash. 

In the epilogue to Plain Talk, Iverson calls this the Cure for the Common MBA.

Here are some of the subjects that might form the core of first-year MBA curricula:

Earning Employees' Trust and Loyalty

Far too many managers have no clue how their employees feel or even what their people's work lives are like, day to day. Employees pick up on this lack of insight in a heartbeat, and that realization taints everything their managers say to them from that point forward. Conversely, employees clearly give the benefit of the doubt to managers whom they see as understanding “what's really going on” and “what we're really up against.” That's only natural.

I'd suggest, then, that every MBA candidate be required to spend at least a few weeks engaged in manual, clerical, and/or other forms of non-management labor.

Further, they should be required to keep a journal of their experiences—the kinds of problems they encounter, their frustrations, their successes, and so forth. They will find that what seems a small thing to them as managers often takes on great significance to them as employees.

Developing managers should also contemplate the implicit and explicit commitments they will make to the people who work for them. They should understand their obligations under those commitments as well as the limitations of those obligations. And they should grasp the consequences of failing to be consistently trustworthy.

Active Listening

Listening is among the scarcest of all human skills, in and out of management. Listening requires concentration, skill, patience, and a lot of practice. But such practice is a very sound investment of the developing manager's time.

Real listening enables managers not only to hear what people say to them, but to sense what may be behind what is said (i.e., employees' emotions, assumptions, biases).

Better still, their reputation for competent listening will encourage others to bring them information. Listening proficiency is an immense advantage to any manager. No MBA should be sent forth into the business world without it.

The Hazards of Hierarchical Power

Inexperienced managers tend to lean heavily on formal, hierarchical sources of authority. This is understandable. They have not yet had the opportunity to develop other forms of authority such as experience, expertise, and seniority.

The problem is, young managers don't often comprehend the hazards of hierarchical power. They do not understand that, by setting themselves above and apart from their employees, they may actually be digging themselves into a hole. I think it is only fair, then, that we warn inexperienced managers of the hazards of hierarchical power.

Principles of Equitable Treatment

Few managers receive much in the way of explicit instruction in the principles of equitable treatment of employees, either in business school or in the course of management development. All too often, managers fill that vacuum with their own self serving precepts of what is equitable. A few common- sense principles, clearly stated and strongly advocated in the business schools, could make the business world a better, more equitable place for employees and managers alike.

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The notion of an internship for managers has a precedent in medical education, of course. Doctors intern for a number of years before they are turned loose on the world. There ought to be a comparable transitional step in completing the requirements for an MBA. Further, that transition should focus on providing the management candidate hands-on experience. Any MBA who ventures into business with the intent of managing people should first develop his or her skills under the watchful guidance of an experienced manager.

The fact is, few business school professors have ever managed anything, and their lack of hands-on experience shows in their students. Medical school faculties, in contrast, are comprised of the best and most respected practicing physicians.

MBA candidates should preferably complete their internships within relatively small, self-contained operations, so they can perceive the operation in its entirety and grasp the overall dynamics of a business.

People throughout the corporate world lament that other parts of their company don't understand them or what they do. They're usually right. It takes an extraordinary individual to understand aspects of a business to which he or she has never been exposed. We are expecting far too many managers to be extraordinary.

Still Interested? Check out Plain Talk, and our post on some of its main themes.

Roger Fisher on a Better Way to Negotiate, Part 2

In Part 1 of our series on the best-selling negotiation book Getting to Yes, we covered Roger Fisher’s four-part framework on Principled Negotiation — his “way out” of highly contentious negotiation. To review, the four parts were as follows:

  1. Separate the People from the Problem
  2. Focus on Interests, Not Positions
  3. Invent Options for Mutual Gain
  4. Insist on Objective Criteria

Habitual use of these four criteria is a way to build, or at least not destroy, win-win relationships in the process of negotiation. The truth is we all must negotiate from time to time. Refusing to negotiate is a strategy in and of itself — and usually a pretty bad one relative to the alternatives.

Fisher’s framework brings up some obvious follow-on questions: What if the other side is more powerful? What if they refuse to play by your rules? What if they play dirty?

Let’s check out a few.

(Don't want to read online? Purchase a sexy PDF of the two-part series for only $3.99.)

Negotiate Fairly

What if they are more Powerful?

We’re all afraid of being taken advantage of in a negotiation. Our tendency to demand fairness is a big part of it, as is our tendency to try to minimize future regret. In a negotiation with a more “powerful” part, it would seem at times like our only play is to make a stand — demand that they meet us or we will not negotiate. That turns out to be a bad play sometimes, and completely unnecessary at other times.

To combat this, Roger Fisher introduced a concept that a lot of people know the name of but not how to use: the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. He addresses the basic problem of powerlessness first:

In response to power, the most any method of negotiation can do is to meet two objectives: first, to protect you against making an agreement you should reject and second, to help you make the most of the assets you do have so that any agreement you reach will satisfy your interest as well as possible.

The common tactics are to either cave very easily, thus ending the negotiation and any possible bitterness, or to set a “bottom line” and walk away if it’s not met. They’re both weak responses: The “softie” tactic almost assures you’ll take a deal that’s not in your best interest, while the “bottom line” mentality makes you rigid, unable to learn and adapt during the negotiation process and probably too focused on one single variable at the expense of other ones. (Lack of creativity.)

The better approach to understand your BATNABest Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. It’s simple to understand in the context of a job offer negotiation: If you lose this negotiation, what alternatives do you have? If you set your “bottom line” too high and you lose, are you on the street? Or, do you have a great second or third option to go to?

While the BATNA acronym is useful and explanatory, it’s really just a dressed-up version of the elementary concept we call opportunity cost, which is constantly at play in life. Realizing that opportunity cost is a “superpower” in negotiation, we can derive the following:

  1. He with the best opportunity cost holds the power. Let’s say you’re negotiating with a large car dealership over the price of a new sedan. Who holds the power? On the surface it might look like the dealer does, given their stature in power. But if you have three dealerships in a 30-mile radius which can sell you the same car, the power is yours, not the dealer’s. When you enter into negotiation, you can almost always afford to lose and go down the street to another dealership, find a different type of car to buy, change your mind and go used, or even keep your current car longer. (That’s one reason why the car business is such a tough one.) Point being, size does not = power. Opportunity cost = power.
  2. Developing alternative opportunities is the way to gain power. If you’re afraid you’re entering into a job negotiation with no power, your best bet probably isn’t to play hardball, it’s to develop other job offers, or even figure out if you can afford to start your own business. Once you can afford to walk away, the power shifts at least slightly. Raise your opportunity cost bar to shift the odds and make the negotiation a little more fair.
  3. Think about their opportunity cost as much as your own. Can they afford to lose? If not, you probably have more power than you think.
  4. If they win the opportunity cost battle, argue on merit. Roger Fisher makes this final point well: To the extent that they have muscle and you have principle, the larger a role you can establish for principle, the better off you are. If your opportunity costs are weak, you must resort to making it clear that the house is objectively worth X, that you deserve to be paid Y, or that a drawn-out fight will only ruin your relationship. This goes back to insisting on objective criteria.

What if they Won’t Play?

A problem arises if you aren’t successful in shifting the negotiation to objective criteria or creating win-wins. Sometimes the other side simply takes a position and stubbornly (often irrationally) holds their ground. What then? There are two approaches.

The first tactic Fisher argues for is Negotiation Jujitsu. In other words, using their own forcefulness against them. Not playing their game. It’s nuanced and we won’t try to cover it all here — the book does it well. But the salient point is that you can’t react emotionally to forceful negotiation. Let them criticize, let them attack if they must. But your job is to keep asking objective questions. “You say you won’t accept less than $2,000 — where do you get that figure from? What makes you say that this is a fair number?” Keep things in the realm of objectivity and don’t get them further entrenched by “attacking back.”

Another part of the jujitsu is to explain to them the consequences of adopting an extreme position. Ask them, hypothetically, what would happen if things went the way they preferred. Fisher gives the example of an Arab-Israeli negotiation where an American was able to get the Arab contingent to understand that if the Israelis gave in entirely, their people would castigate them back home. It was enough to end that line of negotiation.

The last jujitsu tactic is to take criticism unusually well — not allowing the discussion to get personal, even if the other side wants to make it so. I understand you don’t want to be taken advantage of, neither do I — can you explain how your proposal is fair to me as well as you? Can you explain how my position could be altered to be more fair? What would you do if you were in my position? Soliciting an adversary for advice can be disarming if used wisely. All it takes is tamping down your ego. Good lines of inquiry don’t criticize, they probe and try to be helpful. And when you do so, simply pausing and letting the other side talk themselves into or out of a corner can work as well. Use silence to your advantage if you’re making sense and they’re reacting emotionally.

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The second approach is to use a third-party to mediate. Have them draft up a solution as impartially as possible, with both parties giving input, and the final decision being a mere “yes” or “no” by each party. This can simplify and de-personalize the process.

If you cannot change the process to one of seeking a solution on its merits, perhaps a third party can. More easily than one of those directly involved, a mediator can separate the people from the problem and direct the discussion to interests and options. Further, he or she can often suggest some impartial basis for resolving differences. A third party can also separate inventing from decision-making, reduce the number of decisions required to reach agreement, and help the sprites know what they will get when they do decide. One process designed to enable a third party to do all this is known as the one-text procedure.

The essence of that procedure is to have a draft drawn up that best satisfies both sides impartially and without pre-commitment. The final decision for each party is a simple “yes” or “no” to the draft solution. You can do it yourself, asking for opinions and revisions as you go along, or have a third party take it on. In either case, you’re trying to change the game rather than fight a losing battle.

What if they Play Dirty?

A tricky tactic is defined as one that fails the test of reciprocity — they are designed to benefit one side only, and most often, the other side is not supposed to know they’re being used . Some of the most common dirty tactics include: Using phony facts, introducing phony authority, hiding dubious intentions, psychological manipulation, refusal to negotiate, and good-cop, bad-cop type routines. There are too many to enumerate, but the basic answer to all of them will be to refer back to the four central ideas of principle negotiation. You need to point out and negotiate the rules of the game itself when you suspect you’re becoming a victim of “tricky tactics” which you’re not supposed to know about.

There are three steps in negotiating the rules of the negotiating game where the other side seems to be using a tricky tactic: recognize the tactic, raise the issue explicitly, and question the tactics’s legitimacy and desirability — negotiate over it.

You have to know what is going on to be able to do something about it. Learn to spot particular ploys that indicate deception, those designed to make you uncomfortable, and those which lock the other side into their position. Often just recognizing a tactic will neutralize it. Realizing, for example, that the other side is attacking you personally in order to impair your judgment may well frustrate the effort.

The book has some great examples of dirty tactics in play, which are good to refer to. Another book to pick up some of these ploys is Cialdini’s Influence, one of the great books written to protect people against manipulation. However you learn them, it’s good to learn them well. Once you can see that it’s happening, you need to gently, non-threateningly, point out what’s going on and ask to return to principles, or to excuse yourself momentarily. These things serve to defuse an embarrassing situation. And never forget that the best defense in most cases is a worthy set of alternative opportunities, what Fisher calls the BATNA. These give you the ability to walk away if you feel yourself being manipulated with no recourse.

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Negotiating is difficult. It’s a part of life that some people enjoy and some do not, leading to outcomes in the vein of the old saying Don’t ever wrestle with a pig — you’ll both get dirty but the pig will like it. Strong-willed negotiators have a natural advantage over those of us more averse to confrontation, and yet if we push back, stalemate is a usual result. Adopting the Principled Negotiation approach, rooted deeply in human nature, seems to give us the best chance of getting fair results for all involved.

Still Interested? Check out Fisher's bestselling book, read Part 1 of our two-part series, or check out our post on Fisher's approach to giving better feedback in the workplace.

Roger Fisher on a Better Way to Negotiate, Part 1

“Peace is not a piece of paper,
but a way of dealing with conflict when it arises.”

— Roger Fisher

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(Don't want to read online? Purchase a sexy PDF of the two-part series for only $3.99.)

Why are most negotiations so awful? Why do we go into them ready to defend our turf to the death, only to find that our opponent is doing the same? Roger Fisher argues that this is a natural outcome, but one that we need to learn to avoid if we’re going to get things done and maintain good relationships in life. His bestseller Getting to Yes shows the way.

gettingtoyes
Fisher graduated from the Harvard Law School in 1948, in the same class as Charlie Munger, and by 1958 he was a full-time professor. Over a long career specializing in high-stakes negotiation, Fisher played a role in the outcome of the Camp David Accords, the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, and the apartheid negotiations in South Africa, among other events. He operated at the highest level. (We've covered his ideas on giving better feedback before.)

In 1981, Fisher released his magnum opus, Getting to Yes, a short treatise on negotiating in a different way. Fisher recognized that the contentious, heels-dug-in style of most negotiators failed because it either failed to get results, or if it did, destroyed a relationship in the process. He asked the simple question: If being a hard-ass is one style and being a softie is another, is there a third, better style?

Yes there is, and Fisher called it Principled Negotiation. While most businesspeople are now aware of the term Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, and most are familiar with the phrase Hard on the issues, soft on the people, very few know that Fisher introduced those concepts in his bestselling book, and even fewer have actually read and applied what he had to teach.

So, how do we negotiate better?

An Intro to Principled Negotiation

How does principled negotiation differ from the traditional kind? It’s an attempt to create a win-win in a situation that doesn’t obviously offer one. And as we know, of the four kinds of possible relationships, win-win is the only sustainable one over time. That’s why we want to learn Fisher’s approach. Here’s how he describes it:

There is a third way to negotiate, a way neither hard nor soft, but rather hard and soft. The method of principled negotiation developed at the Harvard Negotiation Project is to decide issues on their merits rather than through a haggling process focused on what each side says it will and won’t do. It suggests that you look for mutual gains whenever possible, and that where your interests conflict, you should insist that the result be based on some fair standards independent of the will of either side. The method of principled negotiation shows you how to obtain what you are entitled to and still be decent. It enables you to be fair while protecting you against those who would take advantage of your fairness.

The most wonderful part of Fisher’s ideas on negotiation is that they don't require any secrecy. In fact, Fisher thinks it's just the opposite, saying that Unlike almost all other strategies, if the other side learns this one, it does not become more difficult to use; it becomes easier. If they read this book, all the better. That’s our kind of strategy.

Step One: Separate the People from the Problem

Early in the book, Fisher lays out the goal of better negotiation with three criteria.

Any method of negotiation may be fairly judged by three criteria: It should produce a wise agreement if agreement is possible. It should be efficient. And it should improve or at least not damage the relationship between the parties. (A wise agreement can be defined as one that meets the legitimate interests of each side to the extent possible, resolves conflicting interests fairly, is durable, and take community interests into account.)

The first step of the process is to separate the people from the problem. Fisher’s method of depersonalizing in negotiation is the same method he advises to give better feedback. Why? Because it works! People are emotional creatures — you and I included. In order to deal with each other fairly, we must do our best to move from personal attack into the realm of reason and merit, even when our every fiber is telling us to attack. If we don't, we miss a chance to build the exact sort of win-win relationship we’d love to have. We fail to understand people.

This human aspect of negotiation can be either helpful or disastrous. The process of working out an agreement may produce a psychological commitment to a mutually satisfactory outcome. A working relationship where trust, understanding, respect, and friendship are built up over time can make each new negotiation smoother and more efficient. And people’s desire to feel good about themselves, and their concern for what others will think of them, can often make them more sensitive to another negotiator’s interests.

On the other hand, people get angry, depressed, fearful, hostile, frustrated, and offended. They have egos that are easily threatened. They see the world from their own personal vantage point, and they frequently confuse their perceptions with reality. Routinely, they fail to interpret what you say in the way you intend and do not mean what you understand them to say. Misunderstanding can reinforce prejudice and lead to reactions that produce counteractions in a vicious circle; rational exploration of possible solutions becomes impossible and a negotiation fails. The purpose of the game becomes scoring points, confirming negative impressions, and apportioning blame at the expense of the substantive interest of both parties.

It’s important to understand the point: There are major transmission errors in a negotiating process. What’s heard is frequently not what’s said or intended. And once a negative feedback loop has been initiated, it can be very hard to pull out. A certain critical mass of bad blood ends the negotiation. This doesn't have to happen — one thing that separates us from lesser animals is the ability to resist our baser instincts when we know it’s a bad idea, and negotiation is an arena where we’d be wise to learn how to do so.

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There are three areas to manage: Perception, Emotion, and Communication. Our biggest problem with perception seems to be successfully putting ourselves in the shoes of our adversary, or even seeing them as an adversary to start with. It’s almost impossible to influence somebody who you don’t empathetically understand, except through brute force — something we’re clearly not after. To be clear, just because you understand someone’s position doesn’t mean you agree with it. You may well change your mind, but even without that it allows you to consider the problem on its merits.

The emotional side is fairly simple: How do you feel during a negotiation and how does the other side feel? Fisher makes a great point in the book that we don’t need to be afraid to make our own emotions or theirs explicitI feel like you have not been fair with me thus far, and in order for us to make progress, we will need to establish mutual fairness as a goal. Otherwise, I think we will run into a stalemate.

The communication problem isn’t hard for anyone in a relationship to understand. When we’re in a contentious negotiation, both sides feel like they’re not being heard. Solving that problem requires deep listening skills and as with the perception issue, requires us to understand the person on the other side of the table at their level, not at ours. This feels impossible and unnatural, but it works. Think of the last time you felt someone truly understood and empathized with you. Did you feel contentious towards them?

In the end, the environment we want to create is that of two people sitting next to each other, trying to solve a problem together. Even if you don’t have a great relationship with the other party, or any relationship at all, it helps to make the other person feel like you’re in it together. Which brings us to the next point.

Focus on Interests, Not Positions

This is the simplest and probably the most important aspect on principled negotiation: What do I really want? And what does the other guy really want? It’s the difference between saying you want an open window when what you really want is fresh air.

It’s not always as clear as it seems. Let’s take the case of a couple arguing over who’s going to do the dishes. Both people, in the moment, start to feel like it’s really about the damn dishes. But when we step back, we realize it’s probably more about fairness — we want to feel like both parties are chipping in. A sense of fairness is a deeply held human need. And thus, if we focus on creating fairness and using the elementary idea of leading by going first, then we can end the negotiation fairly. (I’ll do the dishes tonight and then we’ll trade every night, sound good?)

It’s this basic method of figuring out what you want and what they want, and satisfying each, that leads us to win-win style outcomes. Viewing a negotiation as something to be “won” is the best way to lose.

Reconciling interests rather than positions works for two reasons. First, for every interest there usually exist several possible positions that could satisfy it. All too often people simply adopt the most obvious position, as Israel did, for example, in announcing that they intended to keep part of the Sinai. When you do look behind opposed positions for the motivating interest, you can often find an alternative position which meets not only our interests but theirs as well.

At the end of the day, all humans have the same basic needs like food, shelter, well-being, belonging, respect, and autonomy. Never violate these in a negotiation.

Invent Options for Mutual Gain

The key here is that we avoid being rigid in our solutions, and if we've taken the prior step seriously by focusing on interests, we can start getting creative with our problem-solving.

Let’s imagine you’re renting an apartment. It’s easy to think that you and the landlord are at odds — you want to pay the least amount of money and they want you to pay the most amount of money over the period of the rental. But that’s the wrong way to consider the problem. What you really want is to pay a fair price for a clean and well-maintained living space that you won’t get kicked out of. What the landlord wants is steady rent from a respectful tenant who won’t trash the place and is easy to deal with. Actually, most of your interests probably overlap. If you start any negotiation with that in mind, you’ll find it easier to get along.

Let’s say you're at odds regarding who pays for repairs: Agreeing to share the cost of repairs as long as they're completed promptly is where overlapping interests and incentives might create an agreement that could have been contentious. Outline the split, define what promptly means, and you have a settled point. If you were rigid about the problem — I refuse to pay for repairs! — you’d have lost.

Fisher lays out four pretty good reasons we fail to do this:

In most negotiations there are four obstacles that inhibit the inventing of an abundance of options: (1) Premature judgment; (2) searching for the single answer; (3) the assumption of a fixed pie; and (4) thinking that “solving their problem is their problem”.

Any negotiation can get pretty complex when all relevant interests are brought to the table, but the principle to heed is pretty simple: Where do our interests overlap, and where do they not? In the cases where they don’t, what is a mutually satisfying solution? This takes some creative thinking, of course. Rigidity doesn’t work. But if you realize that the car salesman is trying to make a living and wants a quick sale, and you want a good car at a low price, it’s not impossible to mutually satisfy those goals or exit the negotiation if they can't both be met. The “combat of negotiation” is only in our minds.

This doesn't mean you'd want to fold to end the negotiation without argument, or to give in. That's the “softie” style of negotiation. You should have your needs fairly satisfied. But you don’t need to do so at the expense of the other party if it can at all be avoided. Win-lose will eventually haunt you, whether you realize it or not.

Insist on Using Objective Criteria

What is fair? Sometimes in the process of trying to satisfy mutual interests we hit a roadblock in determining just what fair actually means. If two parties can’t agree here, it’s hard to create a win-win solution that maintains and builds the relationship. The usual way is to have a contest of wills. It’s worth $50. No, it’s worth $75! No, $50! And so on.

To solve this, Fisher insists on finding objective criteria by which to measure the fairness of proposed solutions. He’s gives a good example of how this can work in practice.

Suppose you have entered into a fixed-price construction contract for your house that calls for reinforced concrete foundations but fails to specify how deep they should be. The contractor suggests two feet. You think five feet is closer to the usual depth for your type of house.

Now suppose the contractor says: “I went along with you on steel girders for the roof. It’s your turn to go along with me on shallower foundations.” No owner in his right mind would yield. Rather than horse-trade, you would insist on deciding the issue in terms of objective safety standards. “Look, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe two feet is enough. What I want are foundations strong enough and deep enough to hold up the building safely. Does the government have standard specifications for these soil conditions? How deep are the foundations of other buildings in this area? What is the earthquake risk here? where do you suggest we look for standards to resolve this question?”

It is no easier to build a good contract than it is to build strong foundation. If relying on objective standards applies so clearly to a negotiation between the house owner and a contractor, why not to business deals, collective bargaining, legal settlements, and international negotiations?

The idea is to stick to principles over back-and-forth wagering. Refuse to trade tit for tat without setting some standards upon which the decision can be made. Are there a set of precedent transactions? Is there a market for the item? Is there an agreed upon method somewhere? Fisher refers to the sound parenting idea of having one child cut the piece of cake and the other choose the piece. No one can cry foul.

And so there are three main principles to abide by:

Frame each issue as a joint search for objective criteria.

Reason and be open to reason as to which standards are most appropriate and how they should be applied.

Never yield to pressure, only to principle.

[…]

Pressure can take many forms: a bribe, a threat, a manipulative appeal to trust, or a simple refusal to budge. In all these cases, the principled response is the same: invite them to state their reasoning, suggest objective criteria you think apply, and refuse to budge except on this basis. Never yield to pressure, only to principle.

The last is worth cogitating on. When the heat comes, as it can in many negotiations, can you stick to your guns? If you’re in a traditional battle of wills, you may not be able to. But if you’ve taken some of the steps outlined here and stuck to objective criteria, sticking to the issue and not the person, you may find it’s a lot easier to hold your ground. In this way, fairness is helpful to you as much as to the other party.

Still Interested? Check out the book for a lot more depth on these topics. In Part 2, we address some negotiating questions like What if they are more powerful?, What if they won’t play?, and What if they use dirty tricks? Stay tuned.

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Two related Farnam Street Posts:

Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp On How to Provide Feedback. When was the last time you really felt your feedback improved someone else’s life, whether it was your spouse’s cooking or your employee’s performance? The problem is that we forget we’re giving feedback to a fellow human being, not an advice-taking robot.

Dan Ariely takes us to Grand Bazaar to demonstrate the psychology of Negotiation.

Steven Pinker on What a Broad Education Should Entail

Harvard's great biologist/psychologist Steven Pinker is one of my favorites, even though I'm just starting to get into his work.

What makes him great is not just his rational mind, but his multidisciplinary approach. He pulls from many fields to make his (generally very good) arguments. And he's a rigorous scientist in his own field, even before we get to his ability to synthesize.

I first encountered Pinker in reading Poor Charlie's Almanack: Charlie Munger gives him the edge over Noam Chomsky and others in the debate over whether the capacity for language has been “built into” our DNA through natural selection. Pinker wrote the bestseller The Language Instinct, in which he argued that the capacity for complex language is innate. We develop it, of course, throughout our lives, but it's in our genes from the beginning (an idea that has since been criticized).

Pinker went on to write books with modest titles like How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, and The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The latter is a controversial one: Bill Gates loves it, Nassim Taleb hates it. You'll have to make up your own mind.

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The reason for writing about Pinker is that, while re-reading William Deresiewicz's brilliant speech Solitude and Leadership, I noticed that he had an extremely popular piece about not sending your kids to Ivy League schools. It's an interesting argument, though I'm not sure I agree with all of it.

A little Googling told me that Pinker, himself a professor at an Ivy League school, responded with an even better piece on why Deresiewicz was imprecise in his criticisms and anecdotes.

I was fascinated most by Pinker's discussion of what an elite education should entail. This tells you a lot about his mind:

This leads to Deresiewicz’s second goal, “building a self,” which he explicates as follows: “it is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being—a soul.” Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. It isn’t taught in graduate school, and in the hundreds of faculty appointments and promotions I have participated in, we’ve never evaluated a candidate on how well he or she could accomplish it. I submit that if “building a self” is the goal of a university education, you’re going to be reading anguished articles about how the universities are failing at it for a long, long time.

I think we can be more specific. It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

I believe (and believe I can persuade you) that the more deeply a society cultivates this knowledge and mindset, the more it will flourish. The conviction that they are teachable gets me out of bed in the morning. Laying the foundations in just four years is a formidable challenge. If on top of all this, students want to build a self, they can do it on their own time.

If this seems familiar to some of you, that's because it very closely parallels thoughts by Charlie Munger, who has argued many times for something similar in his demand for multidisciplinary worldly wisdom. We must learn the big ideas from the big disciplines. Notice the buckets Pinker talks about: 13 billion years of organic and inorganic history, 10,000 years of human culture, hundreds of years of modern civilization. These are the most reliable forms of wisdom.

So if the education system won't do it for you, the job must be done anyway. Pinker and Munger have laid out the kinds of things you want to go about learning. Don't let the education system keep you from having a real education. Learn how to think. Figure out how to spend more time reading. When you do, focus on the most basic and essential wisdom — including the lessons from history.

Of course, if you're reading Farnam Street, you're already on the right track.