At the recent annual conference of the Collaborative Professionals of Washington, I attended a workshop by Jacinta Gallant, a mediator and Collaborative lawyer from Prince Edward Island. One of the things she spoke about was the process of moving from positions to interests in negotiations.
Positions are concrete things we decide we want, such as “I want $100,000”, or “I want to keep the house”, or “I want the kids to live with me”. Positions are not terribly helpful in negotiations, because they simply describe the points where we butt heads. They help define the things we are arguing over, but don’t help us resolve those conflicts.
I think of interests as the reasons behind the positions.
They are the bigger, broader questions about needs, hopes, fears, and concerns – the things that matter most to each party. When we can uncover the interests behind the positions, then we open up room to negotiate, because we can look for creative alternatives to the positions that still address the interests. If we discover that “I want to keep the house” is really about keeping the kids in their current school, or staying close to friends, then we may be able to offer more financially doable ways of achieving those things, such as making sure enough cash is available to purchase a less expensive property in the same neighborhood.
Uncovering interests is a matter of asking curious questions. Curious questions are questions that do not presuppose a specific answer, do not direct the person to the answer we are hoping to hear. Instead the questions are open, designed to bring out the information we need from the other person. They say “I want to hear more about your goals and concerns” without any judgment implied about what those goals and concerns should be. Sometimes it can be helpful to reframe what you are hearing, saying something like “I think you are saying that you are hoping […], do I have that right?”
Once the interests of both parties have been identified, the next steps are to generate multiple options for solutions that address the interests of all parties, evaluate the short and long term impacts of each option, and settle on the options that best address those interests.