Interests vs. Positions: Guidelines for “Getting to Yes” and Avoiding Negotiation Jiu-Jitsu

interests vs. positions

There is a single orange sitting on a kitchen table and two sisters want it. What is the solution to appease both sisters?

  1. You can split the orange in half and give one half to each sister.
  2. The older sister can receive the whole orange.
  3. Flip a coin, and the winning sister will receive the whole orange.

Let’s say you split the orange in half to be fair to both sisters. Now, each sister has half of an orange. The younger sister proceeds to eat her half, but still feels hungry afterward. She throws the peel in the garbage. The older sister uses her half to zest the peel and make an orange cake. She has no use for the orange itself, so she throws it out. In the attempt to make it fair for the sisters by giving them each half of the orange, we’ve just committed a crucial negotiation error: we’ve assumed each sister’s position and incorrectly guessed their interests.

If we asked the older sister what she wanted to do with the orange, she might have said she needed the peel for her cake. If we asked the younger sister why she needed the orange, she might have replied that she wanted a snack. If we had asked these questions, we would have discovered a fourth solution to appease both sisters: one receives the peel, and one receives the fruit itself. A win-win scenario.

Of course, not every negotiation is this simple. However, understanding the difference between a person’s interests and positions could be the difference between negotiation success…or a miserable flop. A win-win negotiation is one in which both parties find alignment between their interests to create value for both sides. A negotiator’s position might be what they want (an orange), but their interest is why they want it (to eat it or use to make a cake).

In one of my previous negotiation blogs, I discussed how to utilize active listening as a powerful negotiation tool to gather information. Now, you can use active listening to gather information, and then determine a solution that aligns with the interests of both parties. Roger Fisher and William Ury outline this in their book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.

Here are some key considerations to find alignment:

Ask “why” and separate positions from interests

As in the orange example, don’t assume the opposing party’s position to be their underlying interest. Let’s consider an example that Fisher and Ury highlight in their book:

Two men disagree about a window: one wants it open, while the other one wants it closed. They go back and forth on leaving it open, closed, halfway shut, slightly ajar, and so on. Then a third person walks into the room and asks why the first man wants the window open. He replies that he wanted some fresh air. The third person asks the second man why he wants the window closed. He replies that he wanted to avoid the draft. The third person thinks for a moment and then proceeds to open a window in the next room, bringing in fresh air while avoiding the draft at the same time: a win-win.

When you find out the “why,” aka underlying interests, of the parties involved in a negotiation, it’s easier to find what both parties value to create a win-win scenario.

Ditch the “winner vs. loser” mentality

Too often, negotiations are viewed in black and white terms: there is a loser and a winner, and the name of the game is to “win.” Emotions run rampant, and the negotiation plays out with a “you vs. them” undercurrent. When this happens, try to frame issues as an open discussion in which the opposing party feels comfortable with you.

For example, if you’re trying to negotiate with the seller of a building you are buying, try not to get locked into a game of negotiation jiu-jitsu in which there’s a cycle of action and reaction. This happens when the seller names their price, you refuse and go lower, then they refuse and maintain their original price without budging. This mentality creates a situation where you as the buyer think the only way to win is to lock in the low price. Instead, try looking at the bigger picture and address the basic concerns of the opposing party.

Perhaps the building has issues with the roof or needs a structural upgrade. These discussions could be steered toward a suggestion for the current owner in which you imply that they are better off selling the building to you at a lower price than fixing it themselves. By framing it this way, both you and the current building owner could feel like winners.

Have your BATNA ready

We’ve talked about BATNA before on this blog. Fisher and Ury coined the term, which stands for “Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.” Essentially, it’s a Plan B to provide negotiating power and serves as your bottom line in a negotiation. Having a BATNA at the ready helps you avoid doing negotiation jiu-jitsu in which you go back and forth with your counterpart until there is no solution to be found.

Let’s use the example of a car salesman and a would-be purchaser. If the person trying to buy a car wants to spend around $20,000 but would pay no more than $25,000, that means their BATNA is $25,000: the worst-case scenario that would still lead to a successful negotiation and outcome for both parties involved. For the salesman, their goal could be to sell a car for $27,000 but their BATNA could be $22,000. Therefore, if the salesman and the person interested in the car negotiate with their BATNAs in mind, the car could be sold for somewhere between $22,000 and $25,000.

In Summary…

Distinguishing what someone wants and why they want it, using win-win tactics, and having a BATNA prepared can help you avoid negotiation jiu-jitsu to gain a favorable outcome for both yourself and your negotiation counterpart. The next time you find yourself locked in a negotiation that seems like it has no end, try to dig deeper and uncover the underlying interests of the person you are negotiating with. You might find a hidden path to “getting to yes.”