The position/s we take and argue for during negotiations is motivated by and purportedly represents our interests. As Fisher, Ury and Patton (1991) advise, ‘Positions are something that you decide upon. Your interests are what caused you to so decide.’

Unfortunately, too many negotiators become so focussed upon and locked into their surface positions that they tend to lose sight of the substantial interests that lie underneath and that they are aiming to serve. Similarly, they also fail to look behind the position/s taken by the other party to identify what the true interests, desires and concerns, they are seeking to satisfy. Just as words may be imprecise vehicles to convey our intent or meaning, so are the positions we choose to transport our interests.

As negotiators become locked into arguing over incompatible positions, positional bargaining appears to take over from the real aim of satisfying substantive interests -conflict over positions tends to escalate and negotiators move further away from identifying opportunities and potential solutions to satisfy their underlying interests. At the same time, by getting stuck on positions that may be relatively unimportant we may arrive at agreements that are suboptimal in relation to our underlying issues or interests. As Lewicki, Minton & Saunders (1997) observe, by focusing upon interests we move beyond opening positions, demands and concessions to determine what we really want, what we truly need to satisfy and how we can best satisfy our underlying needs and concerns.

Yet, behind incompatible positions often lies compatible as well as conflicting interests. When we focus upon identifying and reconciling our underlying, substantive interests, we may discover a wider range of compatible or complementary positions that we can agree upon to arrive at a solution that will better satisfy our interests. By focussing upon the other party’s interests we may well find, advise or offer other, more beneficial means of meeting their interests beyond what their positions could offer. Similarly, by reviewing our interests we may identify better opportunities or ways of meeting our true concerns.

It is important to recognise that set (inflexible) positions are unlikely to cover the diverse range (type and number) of interests involved in negotiation – accordingly, fixed positions limit the range of solutions to narrow interests and do not extend to value creating solutions that meet the interests of all parties involved.

Lewicki, Saunders and Minton (1997) point out that that there may be much more than one type of interests at stake in a negotiation, as interests may be:

• Substantive: Directly related to the key issues under negotiation
• Process based: the manner (process) by which we settle the dispute
• Relationship based: values attributed to current or long term relationships – intrinsic value of relationships based upon their existence and fulfilment; and instrumental interests based upon the positive benefits the relationship can deliver
• Based upon Objective Standards: what we perceive as fair, legitimate and objective Principles and Standards that guide us toward a negotiated settlement

A useful strategy to search beyond positions and find underlying interests is to continually ask probing questions such as ‘What do you or I want?” and ‘Why do we want it?”.

We have discussed the key element of interests in negotiation – your comment on this topic is welcome.

If you would like to have Peter Spence as a speaker, advisor/coach or trainer at your company, group or organisation please contact Peter via the website contact form or by email at and learn to become a better negotiator.

The key to success

SPANS will provide you with the key to negotiation success by helping you to become a more proficient negotiator, assist you to achieve better outcomes from your negotiations and strengthen your relationship network.

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