Positions Versus Interests: The Role They Play in Negotiation

In any conflict, the parties adopt a position. Lawyers and other stakeholders help to entrench that position, usually by citing the law, until a court decides who is right and who is wrong. It’s a win/lose outcome which may be appropriate in some circumstances.  

However, if the parties decide to negotiate a solution, they have to edge closer towards each other’s interests and further away from their own strongly held stances. If not, it could lead to a stalemate which costs time, money and frustration! But what do we mean by “positions” and “interest” and what role do they play in negotiating durable, mutually beneficial solutions?


A classic position states that you are (1) right, and therefore (2) entitled to something in consequence. It is usually expressed as a demand.  There is often no explanation about why those demands are being made but they could be supported by reference to rules, the law or even a person’s idea of morality. One conflict could relate to a number of issues, and several positions.


Interests are the reason or motive for making demands. Several interests could motivate just one position.


Positions Interest
I am entitled to compensation. Because I need to repair the damage caused by the defective building work you conducted.
I want a full- time job. Because I need to get a mortgage to buy a property and I am expecting a baby
I demand an apology An apology will restore lost dignity and allow me to heal from the pain caused. It will re-establish trust and allow us to move forward in our relationship
I am not giving you access If I give you access, I will lose control and I don’t trust you. I am scared you will take away something important from me, like my respect, self-esteem, control, or a relationship that I hold dear.
I only do business on 14- day payment terms with long-term business partners I am concerned that you will not pay and financial stability is important to me.
I want the transaction completed within 2 weeks maximum If it’s not, I am worried that my company will doubt my professional capabilities and I need you to make me look good in front of the directors. If we don’t complete in time then project Y cannot commence and then the company will look bad.

The other side may respond in the following way:

Positions Interests
You’re not entitled to compensation/ it’s limited to a lot less than you’re asking for! I/ my business does not have the money!
There is not enough work for a full- time job. Our business is in financial difficulties
I want access. I want access in order to fulfil a need, make a profit, establish or  maintain a relationship
I can’t contract with you long-term and a 14- day payment term is unreasonable. The market is uncertain, this will limit me, it will negatively affect my cash flow
Completing the transaction in 2 weeks is not going to work. It will mean having to get more workers, more money and I will have to cut corners which will impact badly on my professional reputation.

Aligning Interests Can Lead to Durable Solutions

A desire for compensation can be a tough position to fulfil if the other party can’t pay. It also means that legal costs might be wasted if you are pursuing a company in financial difficulties. However, knowing that the money is for repairs, a creative solution could revolve around the offending party repairing the building instead of paying funds to somebody else to do it.

In terms of access, if the concern is losing something important or not being able to gain something important, a solution could be constructed around the resource. Is access necessary? Can it be restricted? Can it be limited in terms of time and frequency? This is aimed at ensuring the need for control is met and if the issue is trust then confidence building measures can be explored to reassure the parties of their intentions.

If there is a disagreement over a deadline being completed and the parties are concerned that failure to comply could result in damage to reputation, measures agreed could involve the directors or a discussion about presenting information in a damage limiting manner.

Giving and receiving relevant information will help you to ask the right questions to find out what is important to the other side . Knowing what to disclose and what not to disclose will also be important in the integrative phase of a negotiation.

Creative Thinking

When you understand that positions mask interests, needs and emotions, the possibilities are endless. This is what we mean by creating value and enlarging the pie. Emotions need to be vocalised and acknowledged and once a person feels heard, they may feel safe to reveal what is motivating their positions and what is threatened if they are abandoned. We often see that parties to a conflict have aligned interests such as a desire to make profit, financial concerns, self-esteem needs, a need to feel valued and respected, security or even closure. To really explore what’s driving a position, communication skills are crucial as is active listening in a non-judgemental manner. When you understand this, you really can bring about constructive change and personal development through conflict. Which is why I love this fascinating subject.


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