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Solving Conflict & the Story of the Orange

There are positions and there are interests.


A position is what you want.


An interest is why you want it.


Often times when our negotiations and our conversations unravel, it is because we have shifted our focus from arguing about interests to arguing about positions. By shifting your focus back to interests, you can more constructively engage in difficult conversations.


There is a natural tendency to focus on our positions and engage in "positional battles" rather than interest-based ones. Your interest speaks to your problem while your position speaks to the solution you have identified for that problem. But what if there is more than one possible solution to your problem? What if your focus on one possible solution blinds you from others?


In order to isolate our interests from our positions, one must always ask "why?"


For example... Is an assault weapons ban a position or an interest? Well, ask why you want one. Your final goal, likely, is to reduce gun violence. Your interest is not in regulating guns but in saving lives, and you hold the position that banning assault rifles will serve that interest.


In this example, we see why starting a conversation with your position rather than your interest can shut down dialogue and alienate your audience. Certainly, most Americans share an interest in reducing gun violence. Rather than start the conversation at the outset with a positional, antagonistic battle why not begin with a shared interest of saving lives? From there, you can shape a conversation around shared values. You may eventually persuade someone to support your position. Or, you and your interlocutor may identify new positions that serve your shared interests.


There is a delightful anecdote shared in most every negotiation 101 class that illustrates this quite well. There are two children fighting over an orange. In comes their father, who upon finding his two girls insisting they each need the entire orange, Solomonically decides to cut the orange in half. The next day, he gathers the sisters to debrief what happened. "I needed the whole orange to make orange juice, and I could only make half a cup!" one yelled at him. The other, interrupting her, screams, "I needed the rind of the entire orange for my cake, and now it turned out terribly!"


Each of the girls believed they needed the entire orange. They had each convinced themselves of that position. Yet, if the father had asked them why they needed a whole orange, if he had asked them about their interests, he would have quickly discovered an easy solution that would have met both their needs fully.


In reality, not every conflict has such an easy solution. But, in most conflicts, there is a zone of agreement whereby the many of the most crucial interests of two opposing sides can be met.


Next time you find yourself debating over positions and solutions, you might be better off shifting the conversation to the problem you wish to solve, identifying some shared values and interests, and mutually exploring solutions and positions together.

“The world is endlessly fascinating to those who take the time to look.”

©2020 by Zachary Schaffer