Positions vs. Interests

© 2001 Douglas E. Noll, Esq.

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December 2001

The principals’ meeting had become ugly. The issue under discussion concerned year-end distributions to the owners. While the firm had been profitable despite the slow economy, some members wanted to keep some cash reserves for the first quarter. Others felt that the money had been earned by everyone’s hard work and should therefore be paid out. The discussion had disintegrated into repetitive arguments by each member such that nothing new was being said. As the frustration rose, voices started to rise as well.

Finally, a younger member of the firm, Joan, spoke out. “Look, this discussion is going nowhere. Do you mind if we try a different approach?” she asked.

The glares were now directed at her. “What do you mean?” Robert asked suspiciously.

“You guys have spent the better part of the morning arguing over your positions. You’ve tried to convince each other of the righteousness of your cause, but no one is agreeing with anyone else. I’d be interested in hearing about the reasons for your positions and the interests that each of us has that needs to be satisfied,” Joan replied.

“I don’t understand you,” said Bethany .

“A position is a demand that you are making on someone else. No one likes to be told what to do by someone else, so positional statements tend to get people angry,” Joan said.“Interests are those things that underlie positions. They are the reasons justifying the positions.”

“Let me give you an example.I favor a year-end distribution. That’s my position.The interests that I think will be satisfied if my position is accepted are as follows. First, I don’t want the firm to pay any more in taxes than it has too. Second, I have some personal year-end financial planning to accomplish. Third, I feel, like we all do, that I should be rewarded for the hard work of the past year,” said Joan.

“So Joan, your interests in a year-end distribution are to save the firm money, deal with some personal planning, and receive a sense of reward for your hard work,” said Mark.

Joan smiled. “Exactly.”

The rest of the principals then wrote down their interests. When they were finished, each person, one at a time, stated one interest. Joan wrote the interests up on the white board. They went around the table for an hour until all of the interests were up on the board.Then Joan asked, “If we can satisfy all of these interests, do we have the basis for an agreement?”

There was silence as everyone contemplated the question. Finally, one after the other agreed that if all of the interests were satisfied, an agreement could be reached.

The rest of the meeting was spent in developing options to satisfy all of the interests. Within two more hours, agreement had been reached. Everyone left the meeting feeling good about themselves, their role in the firm, and their relationships with each other.

Positional bargaining is a common mode of negotiation in conflicts. People incorrectly believe that not revealing any information is strong, while disclosing information is weak. The basis for this belief is based on a preconscious risk assessment we make in every social situation. Generally speaking, we fear loss more than we desire gain. We will therefore adamantly state our own position, expecting others to listen.Of course, we don’t want to listen to the other person’s position, so we tune it out. Why is it that we expect people to listen and accept our personal positions when we are reluctant to listen and accept theirs? Is there any wonder why conflict can escalate so quickly?

The conflict arising from positional bargaining can be avoided by utilizing interested-based negotiation.This idea was first developed by scholars at the Harvard Negotiation Project and published in the 1981 book “Getting to Yes.”Interest-based negotiation asks people to ascertain the interests beneath their positions. Interests can be satisfied in many different ways. Consequently, working with interests leads to many more options than positional bargaining.In addition, satisfying interests is psychologically much different than caving in to another person’s position.When we have satisfied both our interests and those with whom we are negotiating, we have joint sense of well-being and pride at jointly solving a problem. When we are forced to concede to another’s position, we feel coerced, frustrated and angry over our loss of autonomy.

Unfortunately, interest-based negotiating is not our default method of dealing with differences. Because we have been taught by example that coercion is expedient and efficient, we tend to use coercive negotiating techniques without thinking. We argue, threaten, promise, and wheedle to get our own way. However, people skilled in interest-based negotiation tend to be superior in conflict resolution, are able to achieve satisfaction of their interests without acrimony, and are able to leave important relationships intact. Like Joan in the principals’ meeting, interest-based negotiators get the job done while others are left spinning their positional wheels.

Douglas E. Noll, Esq. is a lawyer specializing in peacemaking and mediation of difficult and intractable conflicts throughout California. His firm, Douglas E. Noll and Associates is based in Central California. He may be reached through his website and email at

© 2001, Douglas E. Noll

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