Focus on Interests, Not Positions

By Roger Fisher and William Ury

Consider the story of two men quarreling in a library. One wants the window open and the other wants it closed. They bicker back and forth about how much to leave it open: a crack, halfway, three quarters of the way. No solution satisfies them both.

Enter the librarian. She asks one why he wants a window open: “To get some fresh air.” She asks the other why he wants it closed: “To avoid the draft.” After thinking a minute, she opens wide a window in the next room, bringing in fresh air without a draft.

For a wise solution, reconcile interests, not positions.

This story is typical of many negotiations. Since the parties’ problem appears to be a conflict of positions, and since their goal is to agree on a position, they naturally tend to think and talk about positions–and in the process often reach an impasse.

The librarian could not have invented the solution she did if she had focused only on the two men’s stated positions of wanting the window open or closed. Instead, she looked to their underlying interest of fresh air and no draft. This difference between positions and interest is crucial.

Interests define the problem. The basic problem in the negotiation lies not in conflicting positions, but in the conflict between each side’s needs, desires, concerns, and fears. The parties may say:

“I am trying to get them to stop that real estate development next-door.”

Or, “We disagree. He wants $100,000 for the house. I won’t pay a penny more than $95,000.”

But on a more basic level, the problem is:

“He needs the cash; I want peace and quiet.”

Or, “He needs at least $100,000 to settle with his ex-wife. I told my family that I wouldn’t pay more than $95,000 for a house.”

Such desires and concerns are interests. Interests motivate people; they are the silent movers behind the hubbub of positions. Your position is something you have decided upon. Your interests are what caused you to so decide.

Reconciling interests rather than positions works for two reasons. First, for every interest there usually exist several possible positions that could satisfy it. All too often people simply adopt the most obvious position. When you do look behind opposed positions for the motivating interests, you can often find an alternative position which meets not only our interests but theirs as well.

Reconciling interests rather than compromising between positions also works because behind opposed positions lie many more interests than conflicting ones.

Behind opposed positions lie shared and compatible interests, as well as conflicting ones. We tend to assume that because the other side’s positions are opposed to ours, their interests must also be opposed. If we have an interest in defending ourselves, then they must want to attack us. If we have an interest in minimizing the rent, then their interest must be to maximize it. In many negotiations, however, a close examination of the underlying interests will reveal the existence of many more interests that are shared or compatible than ones that are opposed.

For example, look at the interests a tenant shares with the prospective landlord:

1. Both want stability. The landlord wants a stable tenant; the tenant wants a permanent address.

2. Both would like to see the apartment well maintained. The tenant is going to live there; the landlord wants to increase the value of the apartment as well as the reputation of the building.

3. Both are interested in a good relationship with each other. The landlord wants a tenant who pays the rent regularly; the tenant wants a responsive landlord who will carry out the necessary repairs.

They may have interests that do not conflict but are simply different. For example:

1. The tenant may not want to deal with fresh paint, to which he is allergic. The landlord will not want to pay the costs of repainting all the other apartments.

2. The landlord would like the security of a down payment of first month’s rent, and he may want it by tomorrow. The tenant, knowing that this is a good apartment, may be indifferent on the question of paying tomorrow or later.

When weighed against the shared and diversion interests, the opposed interests in minimizing the rent and maximizing the return seem more manageable. The shared interests will likely result in a long lease, an agreement to share the cost of improving the apartment, and efforts by both parties to accommodate each other in the interest of good relationship. The divergent interests may perhaps be reconciled by a down-payment tomorrow and an agreement by the landlord to paint the apartment, provided the tenant buys the paint. The precise amount of the rent is all that remains to be settled, and the market for rental apartments may define that fairly well.

Agreement is often made possible precisely because interests differ. You and a shoe seller may both like money and shoes. Relatively, his interest in the $50 exceeds his interest in the shoes. For you, the situation is reversed: You like the shoes better than the $50. Hence the deal. Shared interest in differing but complementary interests can both serve as the building blocks for a wise agreement.