When the authors of the classic negotiation text Getting to Yes* penned the advice ‘focus on interests, not positions’, they couldn’t have chosen a simpler way to describe what in practice can often prove challenging.
The guideline ‘focus on interests, not positions’ serves as a powerful remedy to the tendency for negotiators to focus on justifying the adequacy of their offers or demands.
Take for example a demand by a customer for a discount: “We’re looking for a much better deal. When we look at your competitors, it seems to us that your pricing is excessive.” Or a demand by a colleague for more resources: “We’re going to need more time – you’ve been lucky that we’ve got this far at all based on what we’ve got to work with.”
In situations such as these, it’s very easy to get stuck in a debate about whether or not the offer is indeed adequate or justifiable: “I think you’ll find our pricing is pretty reasonable, if you compare apples with apples.”
Or, “You’re lucky to have had the resources we’ve given you in the first place!” In both cases, these debates descend quickly into argument and stalemate.
By ‘focusing on interests, not positions’, the negotiator has the power to change the conversation from a debate, into one centred on the parties’ underlying needs, motivators and concerns (the ‘interests’). But this takes self-discipline – to avoid taking the bait of arguing over what’s reasonable and justifiable, and instead to focus on three key strategies:
- Getting behind their demand or offer, and to spend time trying to understand the underlying interests:
“Help me to understand what’s driving this request for you? Why is this important? What’s your concern? Is this driven by a budget need?”
- Helping them to develop a clear understanding of your own interests – the very things that will shape a “yes” or a “no” from your point of view:
“Let me help you to understand what’s important to me in this scenario…”
- Using the shared understanding of interests to launch a two-way exploration of different ways in which those interests can be met:
“Given you’ve indicated that one of your key concerns is to bring this project within your budget constraints, and one of our key interests is to maintain the integrity of our pricing model, let’s spend some time giving some thought to how we might go about addressing both of our needs…”
With persistence and patience, this kind of dialogue not only breaks down walls between the parties, but provides them with a platform on which to develop the best possible solution between them, rather than getting caught up in a haggling process.
* Getting to Yes: How to Negotiate an Agreement without Giving In, by Roger Fisher, William L Ury and Bruce Patton, 1991.
To learn more about interest based negotiation, we recommend the book “Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher & William Ury.”