With my martial art and military background, it is probably not surprising that I liked seeing William Ury open the fourth chapter of his book “Getting Past No: Negotiating In Difficult Situations” with a quote from Sun Tzu, “Build your opponent a golden bride to retreat across.” Ury titled the chapter on not pushing, “Build Them A Golden Bridge,” and it is a good concept to remember when facing obstacles to agreement.
Ury points out four of the most common reasons for impasse: The proposal was not their idea, one of their basic interests hasn’t been met, the fear of losing face, and things are going too fast and the prospect of agreeing appears overwhelming. These are all reasons to be reluctant to agreement, and to break through them, a skilled negotiator needs to refrain from pushing, despite how temping it might be to push, cajole, insist, or apply pressure.
You can look at the situation as having a chasm between their position and the agreement you want. Instead of pushing them toward the agreement, which just might push them over the edge of the chasm, resulting in no agreement whatsoever, you can follow Sun Tsu and Ury’s advice to draw them in the direction you want them to move by building a golden bridge across the chasm.
Ury uses an example with filmmaker Steven Spielberg that I not only believe is a great negotiation example, but a safety and self-defense example as well. When tormented by a bully, the thirteen year old Spielberg offered the larger boy a part in a movie he was making. They became friends because Spielberg offered the bully an alternative path to recognition. This was a successful negotiation of a ceasefire and an example of building a golden bridge.
To be successful, you need to start from where the other person is, not where you are. Your job is to guide the opposing party toward an eventual agreement. You want to make it easier for the other side to surmount the obstacles to agreement. Ensure they are actively engaged in the process and devise a solution that becomes their idea, not just yours. Make sure you satisfy their interests and help them save face if that is an issue. The easier you can make the negotiations for the other side by building the golden bridge for them, but involving them in the crafting of the agreement, the more likely you will break through impasse and move toward an agreement where both parties feel victorious.
To learn more about building them a golden bridge, as well as other negotiating strategies for turning adversaries into negotiating partners, I strongly recommend William Ury’s “Getting Past No.” It belongs on every negotiator and mediator’s bookshelf.