top of page

Identify & Distinguish Between People and Substantive Negotiation Issues

There may be 7 steps in the negotiation process. This 7 step process represents the logical communication process that is most likely to lead to agreement or resolution. This blog will focus on Step 4: Issues.

A Quick Review of Negotiation Steps 1, 2 and 3.

Step 1: Planning. Do the research on the situation, parties involved, up front issues and underlying issues. Be prepared.

Step 2: Introduction including ground rules (Guidelines), names, positions, timing. Also a broad statement of the goal: For example: I want to enter into a long term contract with your business.

Step 3: Identify the facts and describe perspectives. On facts, parties should generally agree: For example, There are five chairs in this room. We do not expect agreement on perspectives: For example, This chair is comfortable. This chair without a cushion is too hard.

Negotiation Stage Four: Issue Identification and Clarification

Step 4: Clearly identify issues. Place them on the whiteboard, chalkboard or piece of paper. Parties should generally agree on the issues although each party may have varying priorities for these issues. This is the time to distinguish between substantive and people issues. Managing these issues take different skills.

In my teaching Negotiation at District of Columbia (DC) based The George Washington University School of Law and Business Negotiation at The Capital University School of Law (Columbus, Ohio), I include a lecturette on this fascinating topic of identifying and distinguishing between people and substantive issues and managing them effectively.

Use Critical Thinking Skills to Identify and Distinguish “People issues” and “substantive issues.”

The Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation (PON*) founded in 1987 emanates from the teachings of the book series: Getting to Yes**, by Roger Fisher, Bruce Patton and Bill Ury. They framed*** negotiation into two categories:

-People issues and

-Substantive issues.

They encouraged effective negotiators to divide the issues into these two parts AND do not confuse techniques to remedy one for the other.

-People issues include emotions, jealousy, resentment, anger, happiness, building trust, building liking or not liking, building rapport….

-Substantive issues including contractual terms, dates, amounts, lengths of time.

People and substantive issues will be present in all negotiation and problem solving situation in varying degrees. Many negotiators find it easier to focus on substantive issues and they ignore People Issue. I am certain you have heard negotiators say,

-Let’s keep personalities out of this negotiation.

-Let’s keep emotions out of this negotiation.

Usually what they mean is for You to check your personality and emotions.

This is not an effective approach. A much better approach is to realize that negotiators must wisely identify both people and substantive issue. They must call on their Critical Thinking skills and Emotional Intelligence to deal with all of the issues. Sometimes the people issues may be the key to this negotiation. They may open the door to creative and long lasting resolutions.

Do not conflate or confuse “people and substantive issues.”

If you identify people issues, you must use your “people skills” to manage such. So, if your fellow negotiator does not like you, does not trust you or does not have rapport with you, use people skills to respond. These people skills include,

-Listening skills: Active, Reflec tive, Discerning, Empathetic, etc.

(Note Blog Entry dated 9/9/2020)

-Questioning skills (Note Blog Entry, September 25, 2020,

Summarizing skills)

-Discussion skills (Blog entry, July 15, 2020)

-Perceptive and Perspective skills (Blog Entry, June 30, 2020)

-Likeability (Blog entry, July 28, 2020)

-Trust issues (Blog entry, August 4, 2020)

-Personality or Character (July 23, 2020)

-Illusory Superiority (Blog entry, June 23, 2020)

By using these people skills effectively, maybe this will lead to your fellow negotiators to better like and trust you. If they like and trust you, you will be much more persuasive. Maybe your fellow negotiator might envision “standing in your shoes” or “put their head on your shoulders.” They may not agree with you but they can see if they were in your place, how the thinking might be logical.

If this is a “people issue” do not try to resolve it by making substantive concessions.

Substantive issues:

Substantive issues include logical and hard issues:

-Length of contract,

-Date of delivery,

-Time of delivery,

-Dates of the contract

-Lease amounts,

-Price of items including real estate.

-Creating options and alternative (Blog entry, May 28,2020)

-Identifying facts and distinguishing them from perspectives (August 11, 2020)

So, when there are substantive issues, think creatively.

-What concessions could be given?

-The timing of concessions.

-Reciprocity of concessions.

-Value of concessions. Are they valuable or vacant or minimal?

A Judge in Delaware often presents a lesson on ethics as part of a mediation training. As an aside, she advises mediators and negotiators to fully recognize and appreciate concessions, even small ones. If a party makes a concession during the mediation aka assisted negotiation, pause the mediation, look to the one making a concession and clearly thank them. This could even set the stage for a transformative moment.

First, this action advised by the Delaware Judge fits into the Kurt Mortensen’s Persuasion Law of Esteem. Most people desire to be heard, noted and appreciated. This helps to create a more positive environment.

Remember the old Mark Twain quote? I can live for 3 months on a good compliment. Note the use of the term: good. One might construe good to be that the compliment is thoughtful, creative, specific, and understandable.

Second, this action might activate the Mortensen’s Persuasion Law of Reciprocity (Also known as “Obligation.”) One party offers a concession compelling other parties to feel a need to match and thus they make a reciprocal concession. Reciprocity is also known as the concept of “give and take.” If parties expect give and take in a situation, the likelihood of success in a negotiation, mediation or problem solving is high.


“Negotiation Tips

To successfully separate the people from the problem, consider the following tips.

Treat every relationship as a long term relationship. You never know when someone you are negotiating with might make subsequent appearances in your work life, or become your next door neighbor. The point here is that no one can fully predict the future, nor can they predict when and how you might need to work with someone in the future. So, to make life easier on yourself and others, imagine that every relationship you encounter is a long term relationship. This is guaranteed to help your negotiations – and your life – run smoother;

Model respectful behavior, regardless of how you are being treated. If the other negotiator articulates an insulting slur, do not do the same. Rather, turn the other cheek and continue on with the negotiation, or address the comment in a manner that is respectful and that prioritizes both the negotiators’ relationship and the negotiation process. If you model this respectful behavior and clearly establish that the objective of this negotiation is to address the problem, your fellow negotiator will likely also come to see that (1) his/her personal slurs are ineffective and/or (2) he/she is thwarting the development of a solution for both of you;

Try to frame yourself, and see the other, as an ally with whom you are working with against a mutual problem. If you see your fellow negotiator as an ally, you mentally place yourself on the same team as him/her. This minimizes the tendency for you and the other negotiator to villainize each other. Framing yourself as an ally also encourages collaboration, making you more accommodating to your counterpart and, in return, your counterpart more accommodating to you;

Try to remember ‘Be hard on the issues, not on the people.’ Use this insightful tip to replace any negative mantra running through your head. This tip embodies the idea of separating the people from the problem. Focus on the issues and make sure that they are fully addressed, but go easy on the people. They are the ones you must work with to best address the issues, and they may be people you will need to work with well into the future;

If appropriate, set ground rules that vocally prioritize the relationship. This can be a very helpful tool! If both negotiators agree at the onset to prioritize their relationship, then this ground rule can be referenced in any future instance where one negotiator feels like the negotiation is turning into a personal attack. Furthermore, since both negotiators must agree to this ground rule at the onset, it primes the negotiation to be a successful process that focuses on the issues and not on the people;

Avoid trading the relationship for the substance. If you find yourself in a position where the other negotiator is covertly asking you to trade something of substance in order to maintain a good relationship with him/her or his/her organization, stop. Think hard before you decide to give up one of your interests in order to maintain a good relationship with your counterpart. While this may result in a better long-term relationship, it may just as likely result in a relationship where the other believes that you can be easily taken for a ride. Likewise, you should also avoid making a proposition that trades relationship for substance. While you may receive a concession this way, the implementation of the deal and the relationship between negotiators will suffer.”

Fisher, Patton & Ury’s suggested approaches:

· Try to understand the other person's viewpoint by putting yourself in the other's place.

· Do not assume that your worst fears will become the actions of the other party. · Do not blame or attack the other party for the problem

. · Try to create proposals which should be appealing to the other party

· Acknowledge emotions and try to understand their source (understand that all feelings are valid even if you do not agree or understand them).

· Allow the other side to express their emotions.

· Try not to react emotionally to another’s emotional outbursts.

· Symbolic gestures such as apologies or expressions of sympathy can help to defuse strong emotions.

· Actively listen to the other party (give the speaker your full attention, occasionally summarizing the speaker's points to confirm your understanding).

· When speaking direct your speech toward the other party and keep focused on what you are trying to communicate.

· You should avoid blaming or attacking the other person, speaking only about yourself.

· Try using “I” statements, such as “I feel” or “I think.”

· Think of each other as partners in negotiation rather than as adversaries.

*PON: The Program on Negotiation (PON) is a consortium program of Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Tufts University and serves as an interdisciplinary research center dedicated to developing the theory and practice of negotiation and dispute resolution in a range of public and private settings. PON’s mission includes nurturing the next generation of negotiation teachers and scholars, helping students become more effective negotiators, and providing a forum for the discussion of ideas.

**Getting To Yes book series by PON. If one likes the initial GTY concepts, one can read further books such as Getting Past No, Getting Together, etc. Negotiation

The Harvard Approach – Fisher & Ury Roger Fisher and William Ury of Harvard wrote a seminal work on negotiation entitled “Getting to yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In” In their book, they described a “good” negotiation as one which: Is more than just getting to “yes.” A good agreement is one which is wise and efficient, and which improves relationships. Wise agreements satisfy both parties’ interests and are fair and lasting. With most long-term clients, business partners and team members the quality of the ongoing relationship is more important than the outcome of the particular negotiation. In order to preserve and hopefully improve relationships how you get to “yes” matters.

Separate the People from the Problem: Because people tend to become personally involved with the issues and their respective position, they may feel resistance to their position as a personal attack. Separating yourself and your ego from the issues allows you to address the problem without damaging relationships. It will also allow you to get a more clear view of the substance of the conflict. The authors identify three basic sorts of people problems: (1) different perceptions among the parties; (2) emotions such as fear and anger; and (3) communication problems.

***Framing is a great topic and skill covered in Blog Entry: Framing, September 15, 2020.

bottom of page