Finding Common Ground: Positions versus Interests

Remember the last time you experienced conflict with someone?  One of the most common reasons we create conflict is our focus on positions.

What is a position?  It’s a particular answer to a question, a particular method of doing something, a solution that is definitive and ours, or even a definition or stance that we have chosen to espouse.  In politics we think of these “positions” as clear polar opposites, such as liberal or conservative.  In real life, each of us carries a set of interests (our personal financial interests, our personal religious or special-group interests, etc) which help us move toward or away from the defined polar-opposite “positions”.  When we focus on the position, there is no middle ground to be found, only a “right” and a “wrong” – as we see it.

As you can no doubt guess, this creates plenty of conflict.

So, what is the alternative?  We can instead focus on the underlying interests of each party and find ways to to honor both sets of interests.  Interests are the broader strategic goals held by participants in a dialogue or negotiation.  If “liberal” and “conservative” are positions, “a healthy growing economy where small businesses can thrive” might be one interest.  Clearly not a broad goal that is completely the province of either position, but one supported by people who might identify with either position.

In negotiation, conflict management and communication, the interests are the strategic goals that allow parties to move beyond seemingly opposing positions to find solutions, have meaningful dialogue and to discover win-win arrangements.

In fact, when we discuss only positions, we are taking a very superficial view of any issue or situation, and avoid the greater possibilities for creativity, collaboration and compromise that comes from expanding our view to encompass interests.  Perhaps that is why we hear so much in our sensationalized media about positions – because the goal is often to titillate and gather viewers by escalating and exaggerating entertaining conflict rather than the less emotionally volatile discussion and promotion of real solutions .

In real life, however, we are usually best served by finding the best possible outcome, and most often by finding the best outcome that keeps our relationships positive and productive.   Understanding the overarching goals for someone’s position gives you the chance to better understand their motivations, their passions, their beliefs and their priorities.  If a member of your team suggests spending more on marketing, and another proposes spending less, there is a conflict of positions.  Inquiring into the interests of each person (beliefs about the effectiveness of marketing methods, priorities for current budget, conflicting departmental goals, etc.), allows us to have a meaningful conversation about team goals and the role of marketing in achieving those goals.  The two team members may be focused on meeting the same revenue and profit goals, but approaching it from different beliefs and sets of data.  By sharing those beliefs and the rationale behind them, a new solution may be created that incorporates the observations of both team members, and they each learn something new about how to approach the marketing budget, and renew their commitment to mutual goals and the team.

Conflicting positions can almost always be best resolved by reaching more broadly to understand the underlying interests and reasoning for the positions taken.  In fact, if the broader interests are understood, many of the strategic goals may be met without a compromise of position, as new elements are introduced that meet additional long- or short-term goals.

Where do you find conflict over positions in your life and work, and how could better understanding interests help you resolve that conflict productively?

To get started, work on clearly understanding the positions of all parties (including your own, if you have taken a position), and then asking what about that position is important?  What problems does it solve?  What makes it the preferred solution?  How does it fit into big picture goals?  And be prepared to share answers to those questions for your own position.   You may find that big picture goals are more in synch than you first imagined, or conflict much less than the positions, and open up new possibilities that everyone can both embrace.