Getting to “Yes”

Posted on 25 September 2009

Grey is the color of death.

That’s what a color expert told me when I described the grey t-shirts our teachers wore while picketing out in front of Pierson High School. Grey, I learned, is the color we turn just before death, often representing mediocrity, pessimism and tragedy.

Well, then, I asked, knowing the teachers want to be heard and successfully negotiate an acceptable contract, what color t-shirt would best signal their positive intention? What color t-shirt will signify that TASH wants to get to “yes?”

Not grey, not black. Black doesn’t emit or reflect light, so symbolically, black represents darkness, bad luck and secrecy. That won’t work. Yet, royal blue, I discovered, represents harmony. Yellow represents hope, optimism, the color of the sun. Bright red represents positive power and strength. Pink represents compassion, coming from the heart. Light green represents renewal and new life; and a darker green represents prosperity, the color of money.

Over 75% of all communication is non-verbal, and regardless of the big signs the teachers carry, nor the carefully chosen words printed on their t-shirts, the unspoken, non verbal message sent by collectively wearing grey is, “we’ve lost, we’re dead.”

I’m also reminded of the book, “Getting to YES, Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,” an extraordinary work written by two members of the Harvard Negotiation Project, brilliantly outlining the importance of “principled negotiations,” which focuses on acceptable compromises between parties, understanding the difference between fixed and flexible needs in the negotiations. Printed in 1981, Getting to Yes, is one of the longest best selling business books in history, and I’m wondering if TASH and Sag Harbor School District Board members have read the book. Right about now it should be required reading for anyone involved in these teacher negotiations.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve talked intimately with parties on both sides of these contract negotiations, and privately I keep hearing the same question: “How do we get to ‘yes?’”

I’ve learned from my work as a crisis manager and communications professional that dissenting parties often back themselves into a corner, and at some point need outside, independent help to find peace. Not a professional negotiator hired to beat up the other side, a mutually agreed upon diplomat to carefully craft a peaceful and mutually agreeable solution.

A highlight of my professional career was in 1997 when acting as a special envoy to an Irish delegation during the Northern Ireland peace process, I carried a sensitive message to President Clinton at the White House. My missive was an expression of gratitude to the President for his appointing Senator George Mitchell as the official United States Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, and that President Clinton’s work toward lasting Northern Irish peace was deeply appreciated. Publicly, it appeared there was no solution to these years of conflict. Yet privately, both sides wanted the “Troubles,” the almost thirty year dissent between North Ireland’s Roman Catholic Nationalists and the Protestant Unionists, to end. It took a group of outsiders with no agenda but peace to bring this long, deadly dispute to an eventual “yes.”

We need a special envoy, a delegation of Sag Harbor residents – parents, leaders, government officials and, dare I say, even possibly some students — to help the school board and TASH get to “yes.”

As Albert Einstein once said, “You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it.” Here in Sag Harbor, we’re 18 months and counting into this teacher’s contract mess.

I’ve heard both sides of the contract argument, and both parties see themselves as right. Right doesn’t solve the problem, it only creates a position to defend. Being right also means the other side has to be wrong, which creates blame, finger pointing and personal attacks. Focusing on Dr. Gratto’s raise, or why TASH isn’t facing the reality of today’s economy is not problem solving. This will not get us to “yes.”

I’ve also heard tough talk over the course of these negotiations like, “Take it or leave it,” and, “This is our last offer.” Ultimatums never work and certainly don’t get to “yes.”

We are a small, diverse, unique community. Sag Harbor is a jewel; yet let’s not forget that the most precious diamond was once a piece of coal under enormous pressure. We must, together, focus on getting to “yes” in these teacher’s negotiations, and getting there with a smile, respect, encouragement, and a collective belief in Sag Harbor’s future.

It breaks my heart to see our children’s teachers walking a picket line. A teacher’s place is in their classroom, inspiring, encouraging, enlightening, lifting our children to new heights and opportunities, not silently walking a picket line, feeling unappreciated and alone.

We have a wonderful school board, the best board we’ve had in a long time. These are good people, in a thankless job, working very hard to build a world-class school district. When TASH and our school board get through this, and eventually work together, imagine what they can accomplish; certainly more than now, when they’re working apart.

No more blame, no more feet dragging, no more stonewalling.

This teacher’s strike has gone on long enough, and it’s time we get to “yes.” And, if we do this correctly, at the end of the day, our teachers and school board will begin a new era. Together with our community, parent’s association, and all constituents committed to a bright, productive future, regardless of the problem, conflict or issue, our shared goal will always be getting us to “yes!,” right here, in our town, Sag Harbor.

North Haven resident, Robbie Vorhaus, can be reached at and

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