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.