Don't Battle Over Positions

Posted in : HR Updates ROI on 19 February 2014
Mary Rafferty
Consensus Mediation
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This article will explain what we mean by the terms ‘positions’ and ‘interests’ and how we can easily fall into the trap of position trading. Being able to facilitate people instead to identify and articulate what their underlying needs and interests is an essential tool in a conflict resolving toolkit. 

Don’t Battle Over Positions - Just Get to the Heart of What’s at Stake – Real Needs and Interests

One of the most useful models with which to view and work with any kind of negotiation or potential conflict situation is the ‘Positions-Interests/Needs’ Iceberg

Positions vs. Interests – An Example

A conflict begins when people start to believe something important to them e.g. their needs or concerns are in some way under threat. As a way of protecting these they come up with ideas and views as to how best this can be managed – a firm stand on what needs to happen from their point of view. Such a pre-conceived solution is a ‘position’, it tends to be the public face that is articulated to defend what’s really at stake their ‘interests’ – often hidden from view. Indeed at times, we don’t really know ourselves what our true needs and interests.

For example, suppose two employees are working on a joint project. Some differences in views start to emerge about various aspects of the project which is causing tension. They arrange a meeting to discuss these. Their mounting frustrations however lead them into the trap of positional thinking and arguing.

“This project is moving too fast…the deadlines have to be moved forward or else I’m just not on board anymore”

countered with:

“But we can’t move the deadline forward – what’s that going to cost us in extra client fees?  We all have to just clear our diaries and concentrate on this”

And another round:

“Ah that’s mad…how can I just clear all my other work and just focus on this one project – that’s completely unrealistic. I see no other option but to pull back at this point”

“Well I have been warning you all along about the fact that this deadline is looming and I don’t think you’ve been prioritising it enough…”

And so the story goes, each one digging themselves deeper into their positions and moving further away from finding workable solutions.

Here’s an example of what didn’t get said in the interaction above:

“I’m under huge pressure with this project and the some other deadlines and am really afraid that I won’t get my piece finished on time and I hate letting people down”

“I’m very concerned about how the client will react if we don’t finish on time. At the moment I’m finding myself doing nothing else but this and am worried about other stuff I’m leaving undone”

The Positions-Interests Iceberg

Working on the Iceberg analogy, positions are on the surface: each side’s fixed views and opinions on how they think the presenting issue should be resolved: “We must do this or else…” (- includes an implied or actual threat helping to copper fasten the argument!). This results in:

  • Lack of listening to each other making each of them more irritated because it just sends a ‘my way or the high-way’ message 
  • The discussion moving into a competitive debate with each one seeking to ‘win’ on the strength and perhaps vehemence of their argument.
  • The problem becoming personalised, with each one seeing the other person as a block in having their best interests served
  • Loss of focus on really figuring out how to sort the situation

Interests/needs are what are under the water line: what really matters to them and why that matters to them.

“I’m really worried about… because…”

Facilitating each other to talk about underlying needs and interests means:

  • They listen to each other and take on board what is said and both remain engaged in the discussion and trying to sort it out
  • They realise that each of them want or need much the same thing: to be able to get all their workload covered and get the project done – ideally for the client on time and in budget
  • This increases their openness to one another and makes them more disposed to jointly trying to figure out a solution (two heads being better than one)
  • They are no longer trying to ‘win’ over each other and instead more amenable to stretching themselves so as to make the joint project work and they both ‘win’ against the problem.

Helping people articulate and share with one another their key interests and needs is an essential basis for problem-solving and making decisions. Getting people focused on what’s really important and why, circumvents the hardlining of positions and means they are more willing to work together towards a common end.

Getting People Out of Positions

So how do we move a person from positional arguing on the tip of the iceberg to hearing what’s really at stake for them underneath:

  • Recognise that what sounds like an ultimatum or a defensive stance is just the tip of the iceberg. In particular, when we are engaged in the discussion ourselves, this can be the hardest part. It requires us to pull in our horns and resist the urge to bat back at them with our own ‘position’
  • Use questions and active listening to help dig out what the real needs and interests are underneath. For example:  ‘Say more about what’s at stake for you in this?’

‘Sounds like you are a bit fed up with it all…what aspect of it is most important to you?’

‘What is it about the deadline/client/work etc. that makes it a problem for you?’

‘What’s your priority about…?’

  • Depending on the context and level of rapport you can build with someone, you might try some questions that get to deeper levels of interests and needs e.g.

‘What important values are being infringed here for you?’

‘Am I picking up from you a sense of feeling powerless about your role in the project and feeling that what’s most important is to take a firm stand?’

So in the example above, some more effective responses that would have moved the focus onto each other’s interests might have been:

“This project is moving too fast…the deadlines have to be moved forward or else I’m just not on board anymore”

“Sounds like you are feeling under a lot of pressure with it, yes I am too. But tell me a bit more about what’s going on for you with it”

“But we can’t move the deadline forward – what’s that going to cost us in extra client fees? We all have to just clear our diaries and concentrate on this”

“So you’re really concerned about the extra client fees… is it that this cost will be too high or is it having to even let the client down that you think is most worrying?"

So the next time you are faced with what feels like a pushy positional stance, first of all take a deep breath. Then rather than batting back, take the time to stop and reflect: How can you best understand and share with one another the needs and interests beneath the iceberg rather than the tit-for-tat of surface positions.

This article is correct at 07/10/2015

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Mary Rafferty
Consensus Mediation

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