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Interests vs Positions (aka Wants vs. Needs)

A critical aspect of authentic negotiation is to understand the fundamental difference between interests versus positions. In every day language, they’re more commonly known as what you want vs. what you need, or even more simply, wants vs. needs.

In conflict or negotiation, Wants (aka ‘Positions’) are things you desire or wish for. They’re elements which are beyond what is necessary (aka your ‘needs’). ‘Wants’ typically cover up or disguise the real truth of what’s most critical to achieve your goal.

By starting with a Position/Want, you demand ‘X,’ then end up defending that Position (if not digging in your proverbial heels) until your emotions start to rise and the conflict becomes aggressive and heated. Wants easily tend to become ‘or else!’ situations. Those odds are 50/50, meaning you have an equal chance of winning versus losing.

In contrast, Needs (aka ‘Interests’) are the fundamental aspects which you must receive to support your goals. Needs are very often non-negotiable, but at the same time, offer up more creative options to solve the problem.

An Example of Wants vs. Needs

Here is an example that shows the difference between Positions/Wants and Interests/Needs.

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 parent 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. In negotiating, you want to avoid ‘either/or’ or ‘or else!’ Positions/Needs. It’s the equivalent of saying you MUST have a pair of Ferragamo shoes to be able to walk home when a pair of sneakers will achieve the same objective.

Needs/Interests Inspire Creativity in Negotiating

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. (A symptom is often just another way to describe a Position/Want.) By articulating one’s exact Interest/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?

Examples of How People Describe Wants vs Needs

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
  • Alternative
  • Not realistic or essential
  • Additional
  • Something I/we truly don’t need
  • An ache
  • Your best case scenario (but not the best case for all parties)
  • Extra
  • Bonus
  • Can live without
  • Optional
  • Elective
  • Something my grandmother used to say:  ‘That’s gravy’
A Need or Interest, expressed in everyday language
  • The bottom line
  • A must-have
  • Critical
  • Essential
  • Fundamental
  • A principle
  • Basic
  • Mandatory
  • Necessary
  • Crucial
  • Business critical
  • Black and white
  • Make or break
  • Underlying
  • Foundation
  • 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?” A longer variation of this question is: “I understand you want (this specific thing), but can you tell me what you need (that specific thing) and not (something else)?” The other party’s response will tell you a lot about whether they’re asking for a WANT or a NEED.

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.

Finally, 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.

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Interests vs Positions (aka Wants vs. Needs)

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