One of the biggest deaf spots that block our communication and keep people from understanding each other is the distinction between interests and positions.
We all know what positions are don’t we? We hear a lot about them around election time. In fact we’re told, if not directly, it’s implied that what counts besides the character of a candidate is the “position” he or she has on a variety of issues. By position we mean, is she “pro-life” or pro-choice.” Is she “hard” or “soft” on crime. Is she a “dove” or a “hawk.” The question is, what does he or she stand for? And what does he or she stand against? It’s a silly polarizing affair, but don’t get me started on that right now.
What I’m pointing to here is that “positions” are about what we want, what we believe in, where we stand, etc. This is useful information when people are working together in an effort to reach a common goal or decision.
However, when we are working to make a collaborative decision, knowing only a parties (pun intended) “position” on an issue, leaves out some important information. For example, suppose Sam wants to cut funding on training and Sally wants to increase it? These are positions that Sam and Sally stand by. Unfortunately, they happen to be opposing positions. If we look no further, this opposition could easily escalate into arguments, rallies, talk shows…hell, an all out war if taken to extremes.
Looking at positions alone is a shallow view. If we truly want to collaborate and seek some level of consensus on an issue, we need to look deeper. We need to uncover each side’s “interests” that underlie their position.
OK so these are common words. We all know what interests and positions mean. Why am I making such a big deal of this? It’s because we often confuse the two, especially in the heat generated by position opposition. We forget to ask “why” Sam wants to decrease the training budget. We forget to ask Sally “why” she wants to increase it. I mean come on, is anyone really “against” training? Highly unlikely.
Why ask “Why”?
Clarifying the underlying “interests” that motivate our positions, we open the field in our search for common ground. Using our example above, we decide to ask Sam the following simple question, “Sam, why do you want to decrease the training budget.” As it turns out Sam has done some research only to find that employee performance declines whenever the same employees attend a training seminar. So he now believes that performance and training are linked.
When we ask “Sally” the same question, we find that she’s done some research too. She’s discovered that the quality of training they’ve been getting from a local vendor is not only below par, but their content borders on misinformation. So she wants to start sending people out of town for training and it’s going to cost more.
In this example, while we see that Sam and Sally have opposing positions, they want very similar things. Namely, for their employees to perform as well as possible. Each of them have a piece of a bigger picture on which they were basing their positions. Through discussion of their “interests” they learn not only what motivates the other’s position, but some important information that can help them build a more appropriate response to the problem.
Here are some pointers to getting to the interests under positions in your groups.
Inquire into interests. Look beyond positions to the interests underlying them to find common ground between opposing views. There are always some shared interests present. Some of those interests can even be satisfied without causing any damage to the party’s position.
Explore both “long” and “short” term interests. Short-term interests concern the immediate conflict situation, while long-term interests look at parties’ relationships and their interdependence. Comprehensive solutions should address issues at both levels. For instance, in our example above, exploration of both Sam’s and Sally’s long term goals for training will contribute to a longer lasting solution.
Caution: Beware of “Needs” or “Values” masquerading as interests. While human needs like safety, recognition, affiliation are interests, they are more foundational than “preferential” interests that we’re speaking of here. The same goes for values associated with different world views. This approach may backfire when you’re up against a need for value and another approach may be advised. Further, parties may withhold, be unwilling, or unable to articulate a need or value when probed for interests.
For example, consider a board member for a national health agency who has joined the board merely to feel important and is not interested in taking on any extracurricular tasks outside of the regular meetings. When asked about the reason (interest) for resisting a motion for increased action accountability among the board members, he may be unwilling to share this fact.
Ask Yourself, Why You Want What You Want. Knowing the interests underlying your own goals will help you better target your goals both as an individual and in collaboration with others.
What is your position on this article? I’d like to know and I’d like to know WHY! Click on Add Your Comments to share your questions, feedback, or experience on this topic.