Interests vs. Positions: A Critique of the Distinction
By Chris Provis
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: "Interests vs. Positions: A Critique of the Distinction," Chris Provis, Negotiation Journal, 12:4 (October 1996), pp. 305-323.
One commonly accepted negotiation rule is to focus on interests, not positions. Provis examines the distinction commonly drawn between interests and positions in negotiation. He argues that the distinction rests on an outdated view of human psychology. Focusing on interests may be counter-productive in some cases. Productive negotiations must take into consideration a wider array of psychological factors.
Fisher and Ury are usually credited with having first made the distinction between positions and interests in their 1981 book, Getting to YES. However, the distinction is not fully explained in that text. Positions are characterized as concrete, explicit decisions. Interests are abstract, intangible, and are the cause or motivation behind positions.
Talk of interests often conflates notions of motivation with notions of real benefit. There may be differences between people's objective interests and subjective interests, that is, between what is good for a person, and what that person wants. Negotiations usually focus on satisfying parties' subjective interests (i.e. motivations). However, some of the appeal of the idea of interests rest on the sense that negotiation will satisfy parties' objective interests, that is, will really leave them better off. Indeed, negotiated settlements that do not yield objective benefits seem exploitative or unfair.
Talk of positions is also ambiguous. Position sometimes refers to a party's explicit settlement proposals, and sometimes refers to the party's unstated commitment to achieving some possible outcome. Once again, these two elements may diverge. Provis also identifies some confusion between positions and instrumental interests. Instrumental interests refer to things a person wants as means to reach some further end. In some cases, bargaining positions may be expressions of parties' instrumental interests. In other cases, positions may be adopted for tactical reasons, simply to influence the course of negotiations. The injunction to disregard positions may lead negotiators to ignore the other side's instrumental interests, and so to unintentionally denigrate their underlying needs and beliefs. The notion of a position then includes at least three elements, each of which can vary independently of the other. Positions may vary in "the extent to which they are publicly stated; the extent to which parties believe their positions to be instrumental in attaining further interests; and the extent to which parties are committed to the positions."(p. 311)
Research shows that concession making is an important part of negotiation. Provis argues that positions play an important role in concession making. "Because of their open, explicit nature, positions perform functions that interests cannot."(p. 312) Explicit, concrete positions allow parties to make explicit and recognizable concessions. Since interests are more general and abstract, interest-based concessions may be difficult to recognize. In situations of limited trust or knowledge, parties may be reluctant to reveal their basic interests. Furthermore, positions serve to communicate interests. "It is frequently not possible to discern what [the parties] interests are except through attending to parties' positions."(p. 313)
Positions play a role in maintaining party's identity and internal unity. "Parties which are groups may rely for their unity and existence on positional consensus. Where they do, it may not be possible to distinguish between positions and interests in any useful way."(p. 314) Encouraging a focus on interests may favor divergent individual interests over shared group interests, with a resulting loss of group unity, and so group negotiating power.
Interest-based negotiating increases negotiating flexibility, but does not contribute to group unity. Positional bargaining supports group unity, at the cost of flexibility. Certain groups may have good reasons to choose the positional tradeoff. Provis notes that "in general, labor unions rely more strongly on a common position than business firms do, because the unity of the latter is more strongly sustained by institutional and legal structures."(p. 316)
Research has also found that "conflict may be related to cognitive differences and not just to conflicting interests."(p. 316) Some conflicts, for example religious and identity conflicts, stem from the parties' differing worldviews or ideologies. In such cases, the parties' positions, as articulations of their worldviews, are more relevant to understanding the conflict than are their objective interests. Similarly, value conflicts are not easily described in terms of the parties' interests. Most conflicts from a combination of opposed values, beliefs, and interests.
Provis argues that there is a tendency in the negotiation field either to ignore cognitive-based disputes, or to redescribe them in terms of interests. Provis cautions that "there are many cases where not even persuasion will lead parties to accept a definition of conflict solely in terms of interests. In those cases, attending solely to interests may not only fail to solve a conflict but exacerbate it, if parties come to feel that their views are not being taken seriously."(p. 319)
In part, the suggestion that negotiators focus on issues rather than positions is simply a reminder that negotiators should look for the underlying causes of a conflict. This is an important and valuable point. However, problems arise when negotiators assume that interests are the only or primary cause of conflicts, that positions and interests can be cleanly distinguished, and that positions can be disregarded. Provis argues the focus on interests "may also be misleading: It is sometimes difficult to apply, often oversimplifies or conceals the real dynamics of conflict, and in some cases carries a bias against one party, where the party's unity is especially dependent on a unified position."(p. 320)