Focus on Interests, Not on Positions – The One Tip Which Can Make Every Conversation More Productive

There was once only one orange left in a kitchen and two chefs were fighting over it.

“I need that orange!”

“Yes, but I need that orange as well !”

Time was running out and they both needed an orange to finish their particular recipes for the dinner. They decided on a compromise: they grabbed one of the large kitchen knives that was lying around, split the orange in half, and each went to his corner to finish preparing his meal.

One chef squeezed the juice from the orange and poured it into the special sauce he was making. It wasn’t quite enough, but it would have to do. The other grated the peel and stirred the scrapings into the batter for his famous cake. He too didn’t have as much as he would have liked, but given the situation, what else could he have done ?

We all love to form, hold and defend our positions. Whether it is at home with our spouse, or at work with our colleagues, once we form a position on a certain topic, it is going to take some convincing to loosen our hold on our “coveted” position. Isn’t that true?

As human beings, we function and operate in this world by forming positions on different subjects we face in our day to day interactions. However, when we encounter opposition or resistance to our point of view, or when we oppose others’ point of view, it is very common for us to defend our positions and it takes some convincing for us to yield from our position.

What I have discovered with my experience of dealing with people over the last many years is that if we focus on people’s interests instead of their positions, it can become much easier to negotiate and converse with them. To clarify my point, and to understand the difference between positions and interests, consider the three points (and corollaries) below.

1. Positions are WHAT You Want. Interests are WHY You Want It.

In the story above both chefs wanted the orange, and that was their position. What you WANT, the specifics and details of it, is your POSITION. One chef wanted the orange for its juice to prepare a sauce while the other for its peel to prepare a cake. This was their INTEREST behind wanting the orange.

Corollary 1

Focusing on positions puts us against one another, which is not a good start to any conversation. On the other hand, distinguishing between the positions and interests helps us discover people’s common desires – like fairness, accomplishment, happiness and prosperity. These desires might not be same for both parties, but they often are compatible, which makes for easier negotiation.

conflicts

2. Look Behind Superficial Positions To Discover People’s Hidden Interests.

The positions we form can be, and often are, superficial in nature. Considering the above story again, it is obvious now that it would have been better for the chefs to peel the orange and take the part they needed for their respective recipes. However, they choose to focus on each other’s positions (the what) and hence ignored their interests (the why).

Corollary 2

When we focus on positions, our EGO gets involved which makes it difficult to move ahead. Looking to discover each other’s interests helps us to understand each other better. It presents an opportunity to collaborate and work together to produce not just better results, but also better relationships.

3. To Uncover Interests, ask “WHY?”

In the above story, what the two chefs got was an undesirable compromise, and I am sure their relationship didn’t get any better because of this.

It is very easy to form positions as human beings, but it is always helpful to ask ourselves why we want what we want. Asking this question can help us discover our hidden interests, which can then lead to many flexible alternatives instead of just one fixed position.

Corollary 3

Focusing on positions alone can lead to unpleasant arguments and/or undesirable compromises. Understanding each other’s motivations behind the positions can lead to win-win situations. It can make 2+2=5 happen.

Conclusion

It is very common to confuse positions and interests. When we act in a “my way or the highway” manner without considering the views of the other side as legitimate, it becomes very difficult to make progress in conversations. Negotiating in this way can do more harm than good, as people tend to dig-in with their opinions and justifications, and their positions tend to move further apart.

However, looking to work together by asking the “Why?” question, and taking efforts to understand each other’s concerns can create a pathway where there was none before. It can result in a partial solution in a not-so-ideal case, and it can allow for magic (any solution better than what both sides wanted initially) to happen in the best case.

What To Do If You Can’t Achieve Consensus in a Conflict?

In the previous four articles, I have written about what conflicts are, what not to do when they happen, how to prepare to solve them through a conversation, and some practical tips to follow during the conversation itself. However, doing all this doesn’t guarantee the result you desire.

Conflicts can be complex, and there are times when people (including you and me) are more interested in winning (or getting our way) rather than working together to get what we really want.  Human beings are complex emotional beings, and often we end up attaching the outcome of a conflict to our personal identification.

That leaves us with the question of what to do if we can’t achieve consensus in a conflict resolution conversation?

  1.  Follow Pre-Decided Escalation Rules

If you have done your preparation well, you already know how to escalate the stalemate to your superiors in the organisation so that they can help. If you have not decided any escalation rules earlier, now is not a bad time to do it either.

The only thing we must keep in mind with deciding escalation rules or escalating an issue itself is to not do it unilaterally. It is always beneficial to work with the other party to decide whatever escalation rules you can come up with, and then if the situation demands, to escalate the issue together.

Escalating an issue alone without first communicating to the other party hurts the trust and the relationship which might make it even more difficult to resolve the conflict in the future.

  1. Take A Break, And Try Again

If you have reached a stalemate, one common option is to take a break and reconvene later. Taking a pause at this time gives both sides space to reflect on the discussions so far and evaluate options. You might decide to harden or soften your position during this time, and get a different perspective of the big picture.

When you meet again after a break, it is important to redefine the common purpose which both parties are seeking. Then you can work together to understand each other’s point of view and negotiate again.

What If Nothing Works?

What If Nothing Works?

If the above two steps don’t help you in moving forward, you can try these :-

  1. Walk Away With Your BATNA

If the disagreement has reached a point where you can’t reach a solution acceptable to both parties, it might be prudent for both parties to walk away with their respective BATNAs (Best Alternative To A Negotiated Agreement). Not reaching a consensus in a conflict is not a bad outcome. Sometimes the best outcome is to not agree with the other party while still respecting them and keeping the relationship healthy.

Once the discussions are over and everyone walks with their BATNAs, you can look back and reflect upon the whole process. There might be lessons for you which might help you in future conflicts, and evaluating the choices you made is a good exercise after the discussion.

You should also acknowledge yourself for putting in the effort required to resolve the conflict. Give yourself credit for working together and strengthening the relationship, irrespective of whether you got the result you wanted or not.

  1. Seek Mediation By A Third Party

Another step forward (if both parties agree to it) could be to seek mediation from a third party. This is different from escalation as escalation means involving your managers or seniors in the conversation. The rules of mediation seek the involvement of an independent third party.

And of course, the rules of mediation should be decided by both parties together. Below are a few ideas to keep in mind before you go down the path of mediation.

  1. The third party must be agreeable and respected by both of you. Do not accept a third party mediator you don’t trust, and never force a third party on another.
  2. The third party should play a neutral role and not take sides. It must listen to both sides then take a decision based on merits of the arguments and facts presented. Decide the rules of argumentation and reasoning together before starting the process.
  3. Discuss possible solutions and compromises. See if you can agree on any tentative agreements. Take it step by step. Even if you can’t reach your desired outcome, see if you can reach half way.
  4. Close the mediation and finalize any agreements. Do a final check to see if both parties are satisfied? Do both the parties consider the mediation and final resolution fair and pragmatic? Without a YES to the above questions, any solution or agreement is unlikely to last the distance so don’t ignore this step.
  5. Create a provision for future conflicts. What will you do if one party goes back on the mediated settlement? Can any party seek a revision to the mediated agreement?
“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow.”
― Thomas Paine

 

To sum up, the above four steps will help you to amicably close a conflict resolution process – with or without an agreement. I believe learning to effectively manage conflicts in a constructive and respectful manner is an important skill to learn, and one which gives people more confidence to work together.

Conflicts can lead to misunderstanding and destroyed relationships, or it can be an opportunity to collaborate constructively and strengthen relationships. In the high pressure business environment we all live in today, if we can develop this ability to resolve conflicts amicably, it can become a competitive advantage for us and the companies we work in.  

 

Eight Practical Tips for Making A Conflict Resolution Conversation More Effective

So you have prepared well (read my previous article), and are walking into a conflict resolution conversation with trust and respect for the other person. You have established ground rules for the conversation, and you know your BATNA.

Even with all this preparation, it is easy to get sucked into our emotions and give into reacting impulsively. Below you will find some practical tips I find really helpful to navigate a conflict resolution conversation efficiently.

I have gathered and collected these tips from various books I have read and trainings I have undertaken, apart from my own mistakes and learnings in the past.

What Not To Do When Conflicts Happen

An enemy is a person whose story we have not heard. – Gene Knudsen Hoffman

  1. Speak in a Non-Attacking Manner – Use “I” language rather than “You” language. For example – Say “I felt angry when you said that.” rather than “You made me angry by saying that.” Take responsibility of your own emotions, and remember the aim is to work together.
  2. Listen and Understand. Summarise and paraphrase what the other person says to make sure you understand his/her concerns and they know it is very important for you to do so.
  3. Walk the Talk – If you feel angry or frustrated by hearing certain words or voice tone, make sure to not use the same words and tone to the other person. I have often seen that observing my own thoughts and emotions helps me to understand others better.
  4. Separate the Facts from the Opinions –  Work together to challenge each other’s assumptions, and distinguish opinions backed by emotions from opinions backed by facts and data.
  5. Stay Silent – Use the power of silence to give the other person and yourself space to process what is being said in the conversation. It creates positive energy instead of building tension and enables us to handle tough situations in a more mature way.
  6. Speak Up Only If It Makes Things Better – Speak Up only when what you have to say will help the conversation in one way or the other. If what you have to say will not make the situation any better, don’t say it. In other words, do not vent or speak only because you had a thought in mind. Speak only when it helps you move towards a desired result.
  7. Give Time for Emotional Release – If someone is venting out, don’t interrupt. If it gets too heated, take a break. Wait for the (emotional) storm to pass before making repairs. Jumping in too early to fix things might backfire and cause more damage despite your good intentions.
  8. Don’t Push –  When you push people, they will push back. Present your thoughts without trying to push them through, and be open and flexible to listen to others’ concerns and thoughts. Give people a choice to accept or reject your ideas, as you cannot force them to your point of view anyway. Work together, not against each other.

How to Prepare for a Conflict Resolution Conversation?

A conflict resolution conversation is one of the most critical conversation in any organisation. The success or failure of this conversation will determine how the inherent energy in a conflict will be used, and how the relationship between the involved parties will be in the future.

As I have written previously, conflicts have a lot of energy, like an overflowing river. It is upto us to build a dam and channel all this extra water (energy) into electricity? Because if left unchecked, all this extra water can cause flooding and devastation in its path. The most effective tool to prevent the flooding and use the energy in each conflict productively is the Conflict Resolution Conversation.

Below are the 5 steps I think all of us must take before/in any conflict resolution conversation:-

1. Create A Foundation of Trust and Respect among all involved parties, which is essential for any productive conversation to happen. This is more like a step 0, as trust is like oxygen in a conversation.

Take steps to apologise or forgive for any past behaviour, and prepare a clean slate by setting any prejudices aside. This will help create an environment of trust and mutual respect. Work together as partners, and not adversaries, as you set about resolving the conflict.

2. Decide Ground Rules for the conversation before you start. These rules will allow you to proceed amicably in the face of differences and disagreements. They can include what is the common goal both parties are seeking, how would you treat each other, and what do you do if you can’t agree on a common solution?

Having such ground rules will assist both parties to keep their egos in check and keep the focus on a mutually beneficial solution. Even in the case of an unproductive conversation, these rules will leave you with respect and understanding for the other person’s position, rather than with resentment and cynicism.

What Not To Do When Conflicts Happen

How To Prepare For A Conflict Resolution Conversation?

3. Listen. The freedom to speak your mind includes a duty to listen and understand the other person’s perspective. Walk a mile in the other person’s shoes to see the situation from his point of view. Acknowledge the validity of the different perspectives without making any one perspective right or wrong.

Walk into the conversation with an empathetic attitude and care for the other party’s concerns. Understand that the conversation is not productive unless the concerns of both parties are met. If you work to address what the other person cares about, you create the possibility of a win-win result which might be even better than what you initially wanted.

“Courtesy towards opponents and eagerness to understand their viewpoint is the ABC of non-violence.” – Mahatma Gandhi

4. Differentiate Your Positions from your Interests – Ask yourself what do you really desire? And why? Let go of your attachment to your position and seek to discover yours and others’ common desires. Asking the question “why” a couple of times can help you do that.

This will help you understand the other person better and create space for collaboration and flexibility. Understanding the concerns of each other will turn you into partners rather than adversaries, and it opens up the possibility of making 2 + 2 = 5 happen.

5. Prepare your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiable Agreement) – The BATNA is your lower boundary, the minimum you are willing to get out of the conversation. Knowing your BATNA increases your negotiating power.

When you enter a conversation knowing your BATNA, that gives you assurance and confidence. If nothing else works, you walk out with your BATNA.

To sum it up, doing this preparation before any conflict resolution conversation prevents us from reacting impulsively when the going gets tough. Conflicts are a natural order of life, and being prepared will allow us to turn them into an opportunity to build a strong foundation (relationship) not just for immediate but also long term results.

It is also important to note that the above steps do not guarantee a successful conversation, or the results we desire. But they will equip us to deal with conflicts with steady and not shaky hands, which is always a good skill to have.

The Power of a Pause

When Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister of India, I always wondered what could be the reason behind the pauses he took while speaking. Sometimes I thought it was because of his old age, and sometimes people even made fun of him for this habit, but I was always amused by the wisdom of his words – not just his political speeches, but his writings and poems in particular. If we take a pause and think for a moment, we can all recall such people who take longer than usual while speaking or answering questions. In today’s fast paced world, I believe such people can teach us some valuable lessons.

Our Quest for Survival

Human beings are hard-wired for survival, and that is the reason we are the most evolved species on the planet. Our brains constantly listen for signals from our senses (sight, sound, touch) and acts immediately if it senses any danger or threat to our physical well-being. Similarly, our mind always listens from external events, giving us a running commentary as life unfolds around us. When we are conversing, our mind tells us what to speak next or it makes a judgement about the speaker or the spoken. It is the mind’s job to make sure we don’t look bad (or stupid), and it decides (for us) what to do next to save us from (perceived) threats to our social well-being.

Our Ability to Intervene & Take a Pause

If there is one thing which separates us from other living beings, it is our ability to stop this cycle of action and reaction, and to take a pause before deciding how to respond. Most of the times, both action and reaction are simultaneous, with no pause between them. An example could be our spouse asking the same question every morning and we replying with the same response without even blinking. The same happens at work when we talk to our boss or our colleagues.

A small pause before we start to speak or answer can do wonders to a conversation. Most of the times when we are not talking, we are actually waiting to talk. Sometimes the person on the other side has a lot more to say but is hesitant and so he stopped. By taking a pause after he has stopped speaking, and maybe using words like hmm… uh.. ok.. but not jumping in with our views, we can let the other person complete whatever he has in his mind. We can even ask follow up questions like – “Do you have anything else to add?” before beginning to speak ourselves.

Simple and powerful words by Mark Twain

Simple and powerful words by Mark Twain

In my conversations where I have been aware to take a pause, I have noticed that speaking up after letting the other person finish leads to more fruitful conversations and both parties are left satisfied. This satisfaction is of being heard, and of being understood. What’s more strange is that sometimes I don’t even have to speak up, and the conversation automatically leads to where I wanted it to go by just listening. As people are listened to, they let their rigidity of stance soften and consider your view point even without your asking for it. Such is the power of taking a pause and listening.

Responsibility = Our Ability to Respond

We live in a world today where we want everyone to be responsible. We want our children, our political leaders, our colleagues, our managers, our neighbours to all be responsible. “Responsibility” is an over-used word in our media driven society, but I believe being responsible is first and foremost our ability to respond consciously. It can make a huge difference in our lives if we can train ourselves to take a pause often and act not from our mind’s fears and judgements, but from our values, priorities and goals.

Taking a pause will force us to think about what is really important to us, and it can have a profound impact on our work and lives. Pausing creates space for ourselves and others to express themselves fully. It creates positive energy instead of building tension and enables us to handle tough situations in a more mature way.

I want to end with a simple request – to take a pause and think about this article, rather than just believing the commentary your mind has provided you as you were reading it.