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Illustrating Multiple Positions to Reach Interests

Illustrating Multiple Positions to Reach Interests

Author: marlene johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand how many positions might be expressed as a means of meeting a single interest, and that some positions may contain "hidden" interests.

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The key to a successful conflict resolution process is to identify the needs of each party and to meet those needs. I'm Marlene, and I'd like to talk with you more about that today.

I'd like to talk specifically about two very different forms of negotiation. One is called positional bargaining and the other is interest-based negotiation. Let's start with positional bargaining, because I think that's the most common form of negotiation in the United States. It's something that we've become very accustomed to.

Now, positional bargaining is really based on positions. And as we know, a position is a way of getting a need met, but not necessarily the only way. When parties are in conflict, typically they come in with positions, the way that they think they can get their need met. And they see it as the only way.

Sometimes they come with multiple positions. For example, you may have workers on strike, and they have multiple demands or positions about what they want. These positions could have to do with health care benefits with hours on the job with pay raises with safety. There are a number of issues, and they have a position on each of these issues.

Of course, underneath the position is a real interest. Now, the interest is the reason why they are really there. It's the need that needs to be met. So an interesting way to look at this is as the position is what they say they want, and the interest is really the reason they want it.

But typically, parties in conflict come in thinking about their positions, and positional bargaining is a form of negotiation where parties will trade back and forth elements of their different positions in order to get their needs partially met. Partially met because they're not really talking about the real interest here, it's the position.

I think you can see this even in Congress. You know, you've got Democrats and Republicans, and they take different positions on an issue and then they may try to bargain different elements of their positions to see if they can reach some common ground. So that's one example of positional bargaining.

Now, what we'd like to do in the conflict resolution process, what's key here, is to move people away from this stance positional bargaining, to think about what they want in terms of positions, and move them towards thinking about their interests, uncovering the interests underneath the positions. When we do that, we can move towards interest-based negotiation.

Now, interest-based negotiation focuses on the underlying interests, not on the positions. Not on the positions. So because we are so accustomed to thinking in terms of positions, or many of us are in the US, if we get into the positional bargaining, we may even have difficulty expressing the real interests or identifying them. It becomes sort of impossible to distinguish, well, really what is our interest here? Because we're so caught up with positions.

So as the intervener, one of your roles is to help the parties analyze their positions. Because by analyzing the positions, you can help them clarify their interests. And you may even suggest alternate positions.

Remember, a position is a way of meeting an interest. So what if we did x? Or have you considered y? Putting out alternate positions, not advocating for them, but putting them out as alternatives may help clarify that a position is really not an interest. And it can help parties see their underlying, or clarify their underlying, interests.

Interests they've expressed, and perhaps some interests they have not expressed as well as the interests that may be most important to them. So as an intervener, we can suggest these alternate positions or ways of meeting interests as one technique in helping the parties clarify what really is truly at the heart of the conflict, which would be their interest.

And then once we reach the level of being able to talk about interests, and we uncover-- perhaps there are several interests underneath one position-- and when we uncover those interests, we can move into this interest-based negotiation. Because it's possible to reach not just a partial solution, but a full solution that can meet all the interests of both parties. That is possible.

If you are only doing positional bargaining, you end up perhaps trading off a few elements and you only get an agreement that partially meets the interests of both parties. So thank you for joining me today, and I look forward to next time.

Terms to Know

An action, belief, or physical item that a party perceives as important or essential to his/her satisfaction or happiness.

Interest Based Negotiation

A form of negotiation in which parties interests rather than positions are focused on in an effort to get all interests fully met.


A particular way of getting an interest met, but not necessarily the ONLY way of getting that interest met.

Positional Bargaining

A form of negotiation in which elements of each party's positions are seen as things to be traded back and forth in an effort to get needs partially met.