Mining for Interests in Conflict

In interest-based negotiation, parties focus on their interests, rather than their positions.  For example, I may object to my co-worker’s reliance on e-mail when communicating potentially sensitive information. My concern about their use of emails is not because I don’t like e-mail. Rather, it is because I prefer direct and honest communication for delicate subjects and am concerned that my colleague is using e-mail in a way that avoids dialogue and, therefore, undermines a trusting, working relationship. My real interest is in maintaining a positive, communicative workplace. Therefore, rather than belittling their use of e-mail, a preferred strategy, in this case, is to help my co-worker understand my interest in direct communication.

Equally, if I can understand that their reasons for using e-mail are also valid (e.g. to be efficient, to be polite rather than confrontational, to share information with many people at once, etc.) then we might gain insight into each other’s points of view. Furthermore, I might even change my position and support the use of e-mail in certain situations. If I’d simply argued with my co-worker, labeling the use of e-mail “insensitive and lazy”, then my legitimate, positive interests may never have been understood. By focusing on interests, we can address the real concerns and values, and consequently, make e-mail a successful medium for us.

The deeper magic of exploring interests is that we may also discover that we hold several interests in common. For example, we might find that we both want to be polite, be respectful, and share a passion for the mission of the organization.  Taking positions prematurely prevents open and creative dialogue.  It also stands in the way of effective listening.  By focusing on interests, people can develop agreements that meet everyone’s needs and build relationships.

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