Interests vs. Positions

27 August 2014

The Story

Imagine a couple, Bob and Alice.  Every Friday, they go out to see a movie.  Today is Friday.  They have yet to choose which movie they are going to see.

Bob doesn’t have a strong opinion about which movie to see but would like to make a decision quickly.  Thus, he suggests to Alice: “I was thinking we could see Die Hard tonight.”

Alice responds: “But you picked the movie the last two weeks in a row.”

Somewhat taken aback, Bob replies: “Um, yeah, but you picked all four weeks before that…,” implying he was still behind rather than ahead.

“But that’s only fair.  You spend every Sunday afternoon watching sports.”

“Wait.  What does that have to do with anything?  You always say that that’s fine since you have other things to do.”

“That doesn’t mean I like it!”

“But you’ve never said anything about not liking it!  Even if you had, what does that have to do with who gets to pick the movie?”

And so on.

The tragic thing here is that, somewhat unbeknownst to both Bob and Alice, neither one of them cares who chooses the movie tonight.  Bob only cares about making a decision quickly since he would like to be home early because he’s low on sleep.  Alice’s only concern is that she doesn’t want to see an action movie.  She really doesn’t care what they see – so long as it’s not an action movie.

Despite that, both Bob and Alice are now heavily engaged in an emotional argument about the equitable distribution of weekly choices in general, who gets to choose tonight, why, what other considerations tip the scales, AND (at least implicitly) what the right way to communicate is.

They’re going to miss the movie.  They’re going to end the day pretty angry at one another.  They’ve opened a whole can of worms that did not need to be opened.  And all they cared about was a) choosing quickly and b) not choosing an action movie.

How did they get here?

Recognizing and Refining Interests

First, neither one of them took a moment to reflect on what their interests were – at least, not enough to be able to enunciate them.  Bob never paused to enunciate “I just want to make a decision quickly.”  Further, he never bothered to ask himself “why?”.  If he had, he might have refined it to “all I really want is to catch up on sleep.”

Enunciating Interests

Bob’s next misstep was that he never bothered telling Alice about his only real concern: catching up on sleep.

Up until now, Bob had made several mistakes – but they were still contained and easily fixable.  For instance, if Bob had started the conversation with “I’d really like to make a decision quickly so I can catch up on some sleep tonight,” the conversation could have gone very quickly and his plan would have worked.  Alice could have then responded with “No problem – all I care about is not seeing an action movie.”

The key is that, for the conversation to be salvageable at this point, Bob needed to enunciate his interest.

Responding with a Counter Argument

The next misstep was Alice’s.

It’s a funny thing about human nature but we assume that we need to respond to everything rationally – which often means “with a counter argument.”  In Alice’s case, all she had to do was say “Actually, I don’t care what we see but I’m really not up for an action movie this week.”  Interestingly, we humans tend to think that that is not a “valid” answer – at least, not when we’re the ones saying it out loud.  Bob would have considered it a perfectly “valid” answer.  After all, he wants them both to enjoy the movie they’re going to see.  That’s the whole point.

In Alice’s mind, though, Bob has offered a proposal – Die Hard.  Since she doesn’t want to see Die Hard, the “rational” thing to do is come up with an objective line of argumentation that will culminate in them not seeing Die Hard.  If she can convince Bob that she should really be the one to pick this week, she’ll just pick something else.  She really doesn’t care if she picks this week – perhaps she would even prefer not to be bothered with picking this week.  But she foregoes all of that in a snap decision about how to preserve her interest which seems endangered.

Taking Positions –  Hook, Line, and Sinker

Unfortunately, Bob falls into the same trap.  Alice just made an argument about why he shouldn’t pick this week.  He really doesn’t care about picking this week.  But human nature takes over and he can’t help but respond to Alice’s argument, which he finds flawed, with one of his own.  All of a sudden, his interest in making a decision quickly is not foremost in his mind.  Several other things have now become urgent, including the issue of what is an equitable distribution of weekly choices and just winning a debate.

Both Bob and Alice have now taken positions – and then proceed to dig in and defend.  Alice’s interest is not seeing an action movie – but her position is a combination of several things all hinging on who should get to choose and why.  Bob’s original interest has now been crowded out by several other interests and his position is that it’s only fair that he choose this week.

Unfortunately, it would now be pretty difficult to get Bob and Alice back on a smooth track.  They’re both firmly planted in arguing about their positions rather than their interests.  Neither one of them really cares about the positions.  Their interests are perfectly compatible.  They could have had a great evening.  Instead, it’s going to be rather unpleasant.  And it all hinges on interests versus positions.

Interests are what you really want or need.  Positions are just the arguments you think will achieve or preserve your interests.  Always focus both on your interests and those of the other parties.  Don’t worry about positions.  They’ll just make things worse.

Getting to Yes

The Interests vs. Positions distinction was popularized in the book, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, and Bruce Patton.  While the situation presented above might not seem like a “negotiation” in the typical sense, it is a situation in which multiple parties have different interests and need to work together to achieve them (either by necessity or because of circumstance).  The book goes into far more detail about how to navigate the waters of interests and positions, truly difficult negotiations, and other related topics.  It’s an easy and worthwhile read.  I recommend it.


In addition to focusing on issues rather than positions, Bob and Alice would have benefited from widening their options – but that is another post.

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