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Isolate the Issues


Disciplines > Negotiation > Activities > Isolate the Issues

...from the people | ...from one another | ...from non-issues | See also


In negotiation, the area under negotiation is often confused and complex. If you can isolate the real issues, then you can address them coolly and effectively.

...from the people

Fisher and Ury (1981) said 'Separate the people from the problem', as they noted how people on both sides of a negotiation become personally attached to the issues in question and hence are psychologically dealing in parts of themselves. To give way on an issue to which you have attached your identity is to lose a part of who you are. This hurts, and naturally leads to irrational resistance and aggressive, competitive negotiation.


A way to separate the issues from the people is to objectify them, turning them into distinct things that can be treated separately. English, as a genderless language, is helpful in this, as you can talk about an issue as 'it', which is clearly non-human.


Another technique is to stand to the side of the person and gesture towards an empty space in front of you both, literally 'carving' the issue out of thin air. You can also use visual language and metaphor to create an image of what being described.

Looking at the size of this, it appears that we will need to carve it up and work on the most important pieces first. Which seem the weightiest parts to you?

...from one another

Issues are often mixed up together in a complex and unclear morass. What seems like one big and knotty issue can turn out to be several simpler issues. If you can separate out the individual issues, then you can work on them as individual items. When separating out issues, keep asking questions such as:

  • What is behind this?
  • What is the purpose that is being served?
  • What are the timescales and other variables that are difficult?
  • How can parts of this be separated out so they can be handled by themselves?

Working on a big, messy issue can take a long time to get any result. Working on smaller issues can get results earlier and give both you and the other side an encouraging indication that progress is being made.

Can I check something? It seems like we are talking about both price and timescales. If we could discuss the price and then worry about how and when it will be paid, I think we could make some useful progress, don't you?

...from non-issues

Some things in negotiation appear to be issues, yet on closer inspection are not as important or difficult or controversial as they first seemed.

Start with agreement

A helpful way of separating issues from non-issues is to start by finding areas in which you agree with the other person. This is also a very good trust-building exercise, as you are effectively saying 'look how similar we are'.

So we both need to get this done today, and resource is an issue. It seems the most important thing is who owns the final product. Does this sound right to you?

See also


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