Updated October 2012 and again in April 2017 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.
Negotiations that focus primarily on interests are called interest-based negotiations. [Other common names for the same thing are integrative negotiation or principled negotiation (so named by Roger Fisher and William Ury in Getting to Yes.) Parties attempt to trade off issues of lesser concern for those of greater concern in an effort to devise a mutually-beneficial resolution. For example, if a couple is arguing about household chores, they could argue forever about who is right and wrong or lazy or irresponsible (positions). But if they discuss their interests, say that one wants to come home to a neat house, while the other wants more free time, they might be able to devise a solution that satisfies them both--for instance hiring a housekeeper, or working together for 15 minutes in the morning and the evening to make sure the house stays neat.
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.
When the issues in contention are non-negotiable, any attempts to reconcile interests are likely to fail and may even make the conflict more entrenched and difficult to resolve. Thus, human needs theorists argue, disputes rooted in human needs or fundamental value differences should not be handled in the same way as disputes rooted in parties' conflicting interests.
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.)
Politics is very often fought over positions more than interests. Everyone in the U.S. shares the same interests: we want to have good jobs and we want those jobs to be safe; we want our families to be healthy, safe, and have opportunities to thrive. But we have deep disagreements about how to achieve those goals, which are manifested in positional debates:
- Some people want universal access to government-paid for health care; others want all healthcare privitized.
- Some want gun ownership to be strictly controlled, others want few if any controls on guns.
- Some want to end immigration into the U.S., others want to maintain current levels or even increase immigration.
These are positions. And as long as we argue over positions, we are unlikely to find solutions to our myriad problems. Rather, we are likely to get further bogged down in intractability.
The same is true for value conflicts and conflicts over fundamental human needs--neither of which tend to be compromisable. There are constructive ways to work with values and needs conflicts, however. The first key is recognizing the nature of the issues in conflict, and devising a strategy that is appropriate for the type of conflict being addressed. For instance, problem-solving workshops are often used to address needs conflicts, and dialogue is often successfully used to address values conflict. But you have to understand the problem before you choose an approach for addressing it.
Heidi Burgess, February 2017.
 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>.
 William Ury, Jeanne Brett, and Stephen Goldberg, Getting Disputes Resolved: Designing Systems to Cut the Costs of Conflict, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1988), 13. <http://books.google.com/books?id=DBdHAAAAMAAJ>.
 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>.
Use the following to cite this article:
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>.