Focus on Interests, Not Positions: 5 Key Points

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Do you struggle to succeed in negotiations? Do you wonder what it means when someone tells you to focus on interests, not positions?

Focusing on interests, not positions, is a key to negotiating successfully. We’ll cover what interests and positions are, why interests are more important, and how to identify interests in negotiations.

Interests Over Positions

The number of situations requiring negotiation keeps increasing, which makes it essential to learn negotiation skills. Twenty or more years ago, command-and-control structures with a chain of bosses ordering our actions were common. Today, however, organizational structures are less hierarchical, more companies emphasize teamwork, and people expect a say in decisions that affect them rather than being dictated to. This all requires negotiation.

However, most people still negotiate using the worn-out strategies of positional bargaining. In positional bargaining, each side starts with a position, argues and defends it, and bargains to reach a compromise. A classic example is when you haggle with a seller over the price of something.

Focusing on positions, what each side thinks is the best solution to the problem, rarely works. When negotiating, you should focus on interests, not positions.

Interest-based bargaining is a negotiation strategy that focuses on the interests of the parties (what they really want) rather than their positions (what they think the solution is).

This is the alternative to adversarial bargaining — principled negotiation, a process focusing on finding creative options that serve mutual interests (some have referred to it as win-win negotiation). The method continues to be taught in many U.S. law schools, and it focuses on interests, not positions.

Types of Negotiation

Negotiation is defined as a give-and-take effort by two or more parties to reach agreement on a matter in which some of their interests conflict, some are shared, and some differ.

Although we negotiate all the time, most of us don’t do it very well. People tend to approach negotiation from one of two extremes: overly aggressive or overly friendly (hard or soft).

  • Hardball negotiators view negotiation as a contest they must win. Their strategy is to take the toughest positions and hold out the longest. Their win-at-any-cost approach exhausts energy and resources and ruins their relationship with the other side. 
  • On the other hand, those who take an overly friendly approach seek to avoid conflict at all cost and reach an amicable agreement. They readily make concessions and may end up feeling exploited.

Whichever method people use, there’s a tension between getting along with people and getting what you want. Both of these types of negotiating focus on positions. This is the reason they don’t work. Generally, you should focus on interests, not positions.

The Problem with Positions

Positional bargaining involves each side offering a series of positions and concessions, which takes considerable time. Each can clearly see what the other wants and the process usually leads to an agreement that both sides accept. But the agreement it produces doesn’t meet the three criteria (wise, efficient, and friendly).

Specifically, positional bargaining is problematic because:

1) Positional bargaining produces bad outcomes: Negotiators become rigid in their positions. The harder you try to convince the other side of the rightness of your position, and the more you defend it against attack, the more strongly committed to it you become. You feel compelled to maintain consistency with your past positions and to save face by not giving in.

The greater the emphasis on positions, the less attention is paid to what each side really wants (the interests underlying their positions) and the less likely they are to reach a good agreement. Instead, the agreement will reflect a splitting of differences rather than addressing the valid interests of the parties. Both sides may end up dissatisfied and will have missed the opportunity for a good agreement.

2) Positional bargaining is inefficient: The give-and-take of standard negotiations, even when the parties aren’t hostile, is time-consuming. The process has built-in features that slow things down, such as starting with an unreasonable position and making incremental concessions. These common tactics work against a prompt settlement. Negotiation requires multiple individual decisions on offers, rejections, and concessions, each of which is an opportunity to stall. On top of that, negotiators can use deliberate delaying tactics and tricks such as threatening to walk out.

3) Positional bargaining undermines the ongoing relationship between the parties: When negotiations become a struggle of wills with each side trying to force its position on the other, anger and resentment build. The bad feelings can linger, hindering implementation and the ability of the two sides to work together in the future. 

The Benefits of Focusing on Interests

By contrast, principled negotiation, which focuses on interests, combines elements of these approaches — there are times to be tough and times be lenient. In addition, the method aims to decide issues on their merits (facts and evidence), rather than on what’s acceptable/unacceptable to each side, and to look for mutual gains. Where interests conflict, results are based on fair, objective standards. This is why you should focus on interests, not positions.

Principled negotiators avoid games. Each side’s goal is to get only what they’re entitled to while being civil and to be fair but avoid being taken advantage of. The process is transparent rather than dependent on hiding your real goal or strategy from the other side.

Anyone can use principled negotiation and it can be applied to any issue. 

Example: Focus on Interests, Not Positions

Underlying each side’s position are interests — the reasons for the positions. Addressing interests rather than positions often opens the way to an agreement. This is the idea behind interest-based bargaining.

An example illustrates why you should focus on interests, not positions.. Two men get into an argument at a library because one wants to keep a window open while the other wants to close it; neither is willing to go halfway. The librarian asks each man for his reasons. One wants the window open to get fresh air; the other wants it closed to avoid a draft. So, the librarian opens a window in an adjoining room to provide airflow and avoid creating a draft. She resolved the conflict by focusing on the men’s underlying interests rather than their positions on opening or closing a particular window. The librarian focused on interests, not positions.

Reconciling interests works better than trying to compromise on positions because:

  • For every shared interest, there are several positions that would satisfy it. But people often pick the most obvious position, and don’t move to another if it doesn’t work.
  • Behind conflicting positions, there are more shared interests than conflicting ones.

You may neglect to look for shared interests because you assume that because the other side opposes your position, your interests and theirs are in opposition too. In reality, some underlying interests may be shared among all parties. Finding these shared interests is one key to interest-based bargaining.

How to Identify and Focus on Interests

Identifying interests isn’t as clear-cut as presenting or understanding a position. While positions tend to be concrete, interests, whether yours or the other side’s, may not be obvious. It may take some effort to uncover them. It’s hard to focus on interests, not positions.

Here are some steps you can take:

  1. For each position the opposing negotiators take, ask yourself, “Why did they take it?” — that’s the underlying interest. What needs, concerns, or desires does the position serve? 
  2. If the other side hasn’t accepted your proposal, ask yourself, “Why not?” Consider what they might have to gain or lose by accepting — for instance, political support or group cohesion. What consequences do they face?
  3. Recognize that each side has multiple interests. For instance, a tenant may want stable rent but also more favorable terms, such as the ability to sublet or have a pet. Also, different individuals on the side you’re negotiating with may have differing interests, which their negotiators are taking into account.
  4. Understand basic human needs: Our most powerful interests are our human needs for such things as security, control over our circumstances, or recognition. Negotiators may mistakenly think money is the only interest involved, but behind a position involving money may be a need for security. If a basic human need is at risk, negotiations won’t progress.
  5. Make a list of the interests of each side to help remember and prioritize them.

If you focus on interests, not positions, you’ll have a better chance of negotiating successfully.

Focus on Interests, Not Positions: 5 Key Points

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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