Positions, interests, and empathy

A Line in the Sand

SOURCE: Flickr user Lars Plougmann

One of the basic elements of successful negotiation is a clear distinction between ‘positions’ and ‘interests’. Both sides of a negotiation have positions, of course — the terms they want or expect from an agreement (pay, benefits, ownership, control, rights, and such). Both sides also have interests, the underlying needs or goals that led them to those terms, either consciously or unconsciously. Positions tend to be binary, win-lose, zero-sum. Interests are usually not.

As Roger Fisher and William Uhry described it in their classic negotiation book Getting to Yes:

Behind opposed positions lie shared and compatible interests, as well as conflicting ones. We tend to assume that because the other side’s positions are opposed to ours, their interests must also be opposed. If we have an interest in defending ourselves, then they must want to attack us. If we have an interest in minimizing the rent, then their interest must be to maximize it. In many negotiations, however, a close examination of the underlying interests will reveal the existence of many more interests that are shared or compatible than ones that are opposed.

There are indications everywhere that important people have forgotten this essential distinction. Our nation’s elected officials and some major symphony orchestras, for example, are not only confusing their positions with their interests, but allowing their positions to trump their interests (and those of their constituents). Or, perhaps, their interests and the interests of those they represent are disastrously misaligned.

It’s tempting and easy to long for a simpler time, when leaders could argue but still find ways forward. But in truth, those times have been more cyclical than linear — appearing when leaders and their context aligned in productive ways. It’s also tempting to paint the whole system with a broad brush, when really only portions of it (admittedly large and obvious portions) are seemingly broken beyond repair.

Since I have some role to play in preparing a next generation of leaders, I’m going to focus my energy on empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. When your job is defined in service to any public trust, empathy is your ultimate competitive advantage.


  1. MWnyc says

    The problem (especially in the particular case you linked to) is that many of the high-powered business types who get onto boards of directors see empathy not as a competitive advantage, but as a weakness.

    And it can be very difficult to convince those folks otherwise, even after a lack of empathy has actually proven to be a disadvantage for them.

  2. nancerama says

    Love your comment about empathy, though sometimes putting the theory into practice can be challenging. And what can you do when one side in the negotiations won’t or is incapable of applying your concepts?

  3. says

    I agree that empathy is really key to helping get past impasses in negotiation. In general, the arts have the unique ability to create empathetic feelings. There is much study on the science of empathy right now. I’m the ED of a theater company and we are considering devoting an entire season to the them of EMPATHY.

  4. says

    I have always felt that one of the most important roles that the performing arts have in our society is that they train audiences in the subtle skill of empathy. Theater in particular is designed for this — we can’t engage in a “willing suspension of disbelief” without exercising some degree of empathy for the characters. This in turn helps us exercise the mental muscle of holding more than one truth in our minds at the same time, which is the basis for any kind of construction conversation about differing views in a civil society. Perhaps we need to start making theatrical attendance mandatory for our legislators? They appear to have some free time just at the moment, and unlike almost everyone else I believe that Congress is still being paid while federal employees are on furlough . . .

    Good article Andrew, thanks.

  5. Ken Foster says

    Andrew I agree with your comment about empathy and would love to hear more about how you incorporate that into your program. In my Executive Leadership in the Arts class we are focusing on the “soft skills”: passion for your work, building an effective team, imagining and implementing a vision that matters, etc. as keys to effective leadership. BTW – an interesting article in today’s NYTimes about a recent study that shows that reading literary fiction before a job interview improves your ability to get the job, largely because literary fiction provides you with only some clues about people and demands that you “fill in the blanks” – a key aspect of successful interviewing and, one would hope, successful leadership. Check it out at: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/i-know-how-youre-feeling-i-read-chekhov/?_r=0

  6. Johann Zietsman says

    Andrew – enjoyed your wisdom – as always! A strong lesson I learned in South Africa is to approach any potential issue in three steps: LISTEN, UNDERSTAND, RESPOND. The order is critical – we often formulate responses before really understanding the other. For me, the second step is what makes it work – or not. Somebody said: “Seek first to understand, before being understood.” However: the first two points you make (about “positions” and “interests”) are key for me. I find that issues become political far quicker than needed, with parties digging in to their “positions” at the expense of their “interests.” And I find if I do not manage to do the opposite (by design), I get sucked in… You have often heard me talk about UBUNTU: “I am because we are” – enough said. Thank you for your insights.