- Abraham Lincoln
Updated October 2012 by Heidi Burgess
Originally published August 2004
What are Interests?
Interests are desires or goals--the things that people want to achieve in a conflict situation. Unlike people's positions--which are simple statements such as "I'm pro-choice" or "I'm pro-life"--which are positions, the interests underlying those position is the answer to the question "WHY do you want that?" or "WHY do you feel that way?" On the pro-choice side, the interest might then be to protect the ability of the mother to make her own health care decisions, while on the pro-life side, it would be to uphold a religious belief that God, not people, should make choices about life and death. (In that case you could also easily say that interest is a value, as well.) In many cases, interests link up to tangible items that people say they want, such as land, money, or jobs. For example, two people might be vying for a promotion--both arguing that they are the better candidate (their position). But their interests could be quite different. One might want the promotion because they want an increase in salary (their interest), and the other might want the opportunity to travel that the higher-level position offers (a different interest). Assuming they are both competent and deserving of the promotion, a creative boss might be able to give the promotion to the one who wants the salary increase, while increasing the travel responsibilities of the other person. This way she can satisfy both people, even though only one promotion was available.
Focusing on interests can help parties to uncover hidden problems and allow them to identify which issues are of most concern to them. In Getting Disputes Resolved, William Ury, Jeanne Brett, and Stephen Goldberg maintain that focusing on interests can resolve the problems underlying a dispute more effectively than focusing on rights or power. This is because reconciling interests tends to generate a higher level of mutual satisfaction, better relationships, and lower transaction costs than resorting to rights or power contests.
Interests v. Positions, Needs, and Values
Many theorists contrast interests with positions. In their best-selling book, Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury assert that almost all disputes have negotiable interests. But when people define their dispute in terms of positions, they often appear to be highly intractable, since one side wants something that the other completely opposes. Therefore, rather than describing a dispute in terms of parties' positions about what they want, it is often helpful to redefine the situation in terms of the reasons that underlie these positions. By focusing on underlying interests rather than overt positions, apparently resolution-resistant conflicts often become solvable. This is because, in many cases, interests are compatible, even when positions are not. Focusing on interests enables the parties to identify win-win solutions to problems that might not have been evident when the issues were described in terms of positions.
Reframing from positions to interests can even help in what appear to be quite intractable conflicts. For instance, a minority group might take the position that it wants complete independence from its current home country, while the reason that it wants independence may not actually be independence for its own sake, but rather a desire for increased political control and improved social and economic status. If those "interests" can be provided without granting independence, then a mutually agreeable solution might be found.
However, parties are not always able to resolve their dispute by reconciling interests. In cases where conflicts are distributive in nature, the available resources have to be divided among two or more people or groups. The more one gets, the less the others get, and there may be no way to "enlarge the pie." In such cases, attending to interests will not allow parties to generate win-win solutions.
Interests and Human Needs
Other theorists discuss the relationship between interests, human needs, and values. Some suggest that human needs can be thought of as very powerful interests. But while these theorists blend together the concepts of interests and needs, human needs theorists, such as John Burton, maintain that there is an important distinction between the two. Although both interests and needs can be thought of as underlying desires, human needs theorists argue that needs are more fundamental than interests. In addition, while interests are tangible things that can be traded or compromised, needs such as identity, security, and recognition are not compromisable.
Interests and Values
Likewise, it is important to distinguish between interests and fundamental values. There are instances in which conflict results from a clash between differing world-views. If individuals or groups have radically different ideas about the best way to live, they are likely to stress the importance of very different things and to have vastly different or incompatible goals. Like needs, values tend to be quite stable and non-negotiable. If the basic substantive issues of the conflict are deeply embedded in the participants' moral views, these issues are likely to be intractable. Any attempts to resolve such conflicts solely by addressing interests are likely to prove ineffective. Thus, human needs theorists argue, interest-based bargaining is excellent for interest-based disputes, but it should not be applied to disputes involving human needs or deep-rooted value differences. (That is why interest-based bargaining cannot resolve the abortion conflict--as the underlying interests are also fundamental values, thus are not for trading.)
 Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, (New York: Penguin Books, 1981/2011). <http://www.beyondintractability.org/library/external-resource?biblio=23737>.
 Fisher and Ury.
 For further discussion of human needs, see: John Burton, Conflict: Resolution and Provention, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990). <http://www.amazon.com/Conflict-Resolution-Provention-Series/dp/0312037481>.
Maiese, Michelle. "Interests, Positions, Needs, and Values." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2004 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/interests>.