Positions and interests

If there is any key to understanding how to negotiate successfully, it is distinguishing between a party’s negotiating position and its interests.

Consider the following story to help distinguish between positions and interests.


Positions are concrete things that are desired and are often presented as demands--”I want”

The following list describes positions:

  • They can contain incomplete information and posturing
  • They are often phrased as statements and demands, but framed as solutions
  • They are often narrow and tactical
  • They are often concrete

Interests are the intangible motivations that lead you to take positions. Interests flow from the most basic human needs, both material (food, shelter, safety, etc.) and non-material (identity, family, faith). Interests are broader than positions and reflect needs, hopes and concerns-- “I need….” Interests often reflect strategic factors and deeply rooted beliefs.

Looking beyond positions to the interests underlying them is a technique that can help you find common ground between parties in conflict, since there may be some shared interests present. Some of those interests can even be satisfied without causing any damage to either party’s position. To help in understanding shared interests, it might be useful to write down in columns the positions, and the long-term as well as short term interest of the parties.

Negotiating positions

If you do not know what your interests are, you will find it very difficult to articulate negotiating positions to support those interests. Once you have clearly defined your broader interests, you are in a position to identify the negotiating positions that can best support those interests. Negotiating positions are the servants of your interests, and you should never confuse one with the other.

The other’s shoes

The single most important skill in negotiation is the ability to put yourself in the other side’s shoes. If you are trying to change their thinking, you need to begin by understanding what their thinking is. Try to imagine from their point of view—what do they most care about? The more that you know about the other side, the better your chance of success.

Understanding your own interests can help you develop additional options. Understanding the other party’s interests can help you develop mutually acceptable and beneficial solutions.