Positions vs. Interests

Arguably the most common blinder that we tend to wear in a negotiation is also a fundamental premise of mediation.  It is the idea that there’s often a difference between what we negotiate for and what we actually want. We sometimes confuse our “positions” (what we negotiate for on the surface) and our “interests” (our true needs or objectives).   

A common example of this is to use the case of two parties negotiating over how to split an orange. 

At the beginning of the negotiation, we don’t know what the other party is going to do with the orange. We just know that they want a piece of the orange, and so we tend to assume that the negotiation will be about who gets what percentage of the orange. 

This can quickly become a zero-sum game, leaving each party struggling only with what percentage of the orange they’ll get while focusing on how to increase their leverage to maximize their share of the orange.

By looking at this process from an interest or “needs based” perspective – we go another level deeper and examine what each of us really requires to fulfill our objectives. 

Perhaps my objective is to bake a cake for which I actually only need the rind, while the other party’s objective is to make orange juice.  In that case, negotiating for a simple percentage of the orange between us makes little sense. If we split the orange by percentage, I’d get less rind than I want, plus juice and pulp that I have no use for, while the opposite would be true for the other party.

The first question everyone asks of course is – fine, but how often do negotiations really work out that way?  The answer – you’d be surprised – is very often.  It is extremely common for parties to discover a way to make the negotiation more efficient by being willing to take a step back and look more thoroughly at everyone’s positions and interests. 

The reason mediation is so effective is that it removes much of the risk involved with sharing with the other party what actually matters to you.  Normally we’re guarded when we negotiate – we don’t want to let the other party know too much.  But mediation helps to mitigate the risk of sharing more information by managing how the information is shared.  

Mediation creates a sort of safe-zone of information exchange so you can test possibilities carefully.  In part because of confidentiality, but also due to the process design itself, parties are able to share with the mediator what their true needs might be (which does not get communicated to the other party unless by permission), and the mediator can facilitate to optimize for the benefit of the parties to get what they actually want, or much closer to it, than they otherwise would have. 

In this “free zone”, the mediator removes most of the risk of focusing on your true interests. Information exchange and collaboration is safe and controlled. It gets locked in a vault of sorts while each party evaluates their interests carefully. 

It’s because of this safe zone, that mediation can be so efficient and easy in comparison to other forms of dispute resolution.  Most of the “bashing” energy that goes into open conflict isn’t needed here because the mediator manages the process and keeps parties in line.

And what about when one of the parties is not acting in good faith? 

Using the orange metaphor, what if one party is interested in the whole orange no matter what – perhaps they want to make juice and cake, or perhaps they are just so driven by greed and domination that all that matters is that they get more of the orange than you do.  Maybe they’ll just throw half of it away, or they just want it to throw it at you. 

Sometimes that is the case – that either there is simply no room for mutual trust or agreement, or one party is truly operating in bad faith or even pure malice.  This is generally a small minority of cases, but what mediation does effectively in these situations is help parties flush out those intentions more clearly.   

Ironically, in my experience parties with malicious intent wind up coming out worse than parties with honest intent, because the process tends to flush out dishonesty. The safe zone grants very little oxygen to fuel the fires of malice, and exposes it very quickly. 

A deal may not get done of course, and the bad-faith party may not get a comeuppance, but the honest party walks away with greater confidence and a much better idea of how to move forward than they had before.  It’s rarely wasted effort. In summary, when you start to distinguish your negotiating positions from your actual objectives, you could either get a much more efficient deal than you would have otherwise, or you get so much more clarity on the situation than you previously had that you’re propelled forward anyway.