A critical aspect of authentic negotiation is to understand the fundamental difference between interests versus positions. In every day language, it’s more commonly known as what you need vs. what you want.
In conflict or negotiation, Wants (aka ‘Interests’) are things you desire or wish for. They’re elements which are beyond what is necessary. In contrast, Needs (aka ‘Positions’) are the fundamental aspects which you must have to support your goals. ‘Wants’ typically cover up or disguise the real truth of what’s most critical. ‘Needs’ are aspects which are not up for negotiation.
This example explains the difference between interests versus positions.
A parent group in the US wants its local high school to change the American history textbook suggested by federal curricula standards. The group feels the book doesn’t adequately represent true US history, particularly of African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans. At a School Committee meeting, the chairman of the group says, “The only textbook that works for us is The People of the United States … and that’s final!”
This is a position rather than an interest. By drawing a bottom line at a specific book, the group is stuck to one cemented position. If they can’t convince the School Committee to choose this textbook, they’ll lose the negotiation. Many times a position means the party has reduced the negotiation down to either/or. In other words, you have a 50/50 change of losing your argument.
Another approach the parent group could have taken is to say, “We’re concerned about the under-representation of racial minorities in the current U.S. history textbook, and we would like teachers to show alternatives.” For example, the parent group and school committee could consider supplementing the history textbook with a packet of articles about minorities, or add mandatory units on slavery, or offer a different course about minorities in America.
This is an interest rather than a position. This states the specific problem, rather than a symptom (another way to think of a position). By articulating one’s exact interest (or need), it offers both/all parties in conflict to look for other alternatives, not just debating a specific (and narrow) solution. This allows both sides to be firm and clear about their goals without dismissing potential solutions.
This strategy also points out the necessity of creativity in negotiation skills. By expressing one’s needs, it switches the dialogue from arguing to brainstorming together solutions which allow both sides to reach consensus. Instead of Nothing else! to What else?
The difference between interests versus positions in your own negotiation will vary, but here’s a short list of words or attributes which might help you understand the difference so you can define your own.
A Want or Position, expressed in everyday language
- A desire or wish (or something desired)
- A nice to have
- A luxury
- Not realistic or essential
- Something I/we truly don’t need
- An ache
- Your best case scenario (but not the best case for all parties)
- Can live without
- Something my grandmother used to say: ‘That’s gravy’
A Need or Interest, expressed in everyday language
- The bottom line
- A must-have
- A principle
- Business critical
- Black and white
- Make or break
- And, anything that is non-negotiable (Click here for more detail.)
Finally, you may not know during the conflict or at the negotiation table whether the other party’s demands are Wants or Needs. The best alternative is to recognise what they’ve said, but also ask: “Why is that important to you?” You might also try the 5 Whys technique. These questions will help you delve more deeply into their perspective so you understand how essential it is to the resolution, or whether there might be other alternatives not yet uncovered. You might also do the same for yourself, so you don’t limit other solutions to meet your objectives.
For anyone managing negotiation, I highly recommend this book: Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and William Ury. The link goes to the Amazon Australia website, but you should be re-directed to the proper site.
What are some of the ways you’ve heard other parties describe a want vs a need? Please add your thoughts in the Comments below.