Interests vs. Position – Identifying What You Really Want

Written by John Curtis on . Posted in Conflict Resolution

I remember being in preschool; it was fierce. I always begged to go early because I wanted to get there before her. A little girl in my class and I fought intensely over a farm set with a barn and animal figures. We both loved playing with it – but certainly not together. Whoever got to it first, won.  And the loser cried. The teacher tried using a timer; she tried taking the toy away.

Finally, she asked why we liked it so much. Well, of course it was because of the fun tractor that I made the farmer ride around in. But the little girl said she liked to play with the horse and make a nice house for it in the barn. Problem solved. Once the teacher understood our interests versus our positions, she was able to create a compromise we could both live with. This is a useful skill for parents, and it is essential in the process of mediation.

Understanding people’s interests – what really matters – as opposed to their positions -how they think they are going to get what really matters, is essential for successful conflict resolution. But what does it mean? And how do they interrelate?

Your Position. Your position is how you describe the conflict in its simplest terms. I would have said, “I want to play with the farm.” My classmate would have said, “I want to play with the farm.” When people are stuck in a conflict, each side tends to have a strong position, and they can seem intractable. I want that farm, she can’t have it. We can’t share it. That’s it. End of story!

A person’s position can come across as a demand, and often they are strenuously asserted and defended. At this stage, positions tend to have an “all or nothing” or ultimatum quality. They either win or lose.  When people are incapable of moving forward in these situations a mediator can help reframe the conflict and identify the underlying interests, a  new joint solution often emerges naturally merely from a clarification of the underlying interests that were initially hidden from view.

Your Interests. This is what the mediator (or the preschool teacher) needs to uncover. This is the answer to the question “why?” that can lead to resolution. Both sides typically have multiple interests. Interests are more difficult to change than positions because they are unique to the individual – their needs and expectations. To use our handy example one more time, my interest in the farm was the farm yard and the tractor. My classmate’s was the barn and the horse. Discovering this, our teacher was able to develop a solution that would meet both of our interests. The situation was not as “all or nothing” as it appeared in the beginning.

It is not this easy in mediation situations, especially those involving complex and heated issues.  Even in these really tough cases the basic concept of identifying what you really want versus what you say you want can be crucial in determining a satisfactory resolution to conflict.  One of the more interesting facts is that often it is not just about understanding the interests of the other person that is needed for effective conflict resolution.  Frequently, we are so absorbed by our own perceived solution to the problem (our position) that we not sufficiently clear on what our own interests really are in their simplest form.

John Curtis

John Curtis

John Curtis is a successful lawyer with over 15 years’ experience in litigation focusing on Sport Law and Mediation Services. In addition, he is an expert in providing engaging, hands-on Conflict Resolution Training including Mediation Training, Negotiation Skills Training and Conflict Coach Training