Every now and then, I’m posting some thoughts from the field of mediation, partly because it’s what I do and partly because it’s so helpful in everyday life. I posted a blog a while back on how to say no positively, and it’s one of the most frequently googled posts I have. So for your consideration, a few thoughts on how to get through your next conflict, whether it be at work, at home, with a neighbor or a business.
First, some basic negotiation theory. Most people approach negotiations as if there’s a pie that needs to be split. If one person gets more, the other gets less. Dealing with money is a good example – if your department has only so much funding, what each person gets has to add up to that and no more. But even when dealing with money, there’s another way, and it’s called “interest-based” negotiation.
Here’s a story often used to illustrate it. Two sisters are arguing over some oranges. Each insists that she needs all of them for a breakfast they are making for Mother’s Day. The oranges come from Mom’s garden, but this is all there is.
If this were a standard negotiation, the mediator might ask each sister if there is any way they could do with less, and divide up what there is. Or maybe they could go the store and buy more, and each could have some of the ones from the garden and some store-bought ones. Neither sister goes away with what she wants, and chances are both are unhappy.
Now we go to interest-based negotiation. The mediator asks each sister WHY she wants the oranges. She might not see the point, but she’ll probably answer the question. The first says she wants the rind to bake a coffee cake. The second says she needs the fruit to make orange juice. The mediator splits the rind from the fruit, passes out the pieces, and everyone gets 100% of what she wants. The idea is to increase the size of the pie rather than splitting a smaller pie.
Now of course, it’s not always this easy. But a surprising amount of the time, people come into a dispute assuming that there’s only one way to get what they need. And if that way isn’t acceptable to the other person, an intractable problem arises.
Here’s a more typical problem. An employee has decided she needs a raise. Her boss doesn’t have any more money to give her a raise, so he says no. She continues to press the issue, saying that she must earn more money or take another job. Not wanting to lose her but not knowing where to get the money, the boss calls the company mediator.
The mediator starts by exploring both sides a little more, mainly by asking why – getting to the interests underneath the positions. Her position is that she needs more money, but the reason she needs more money is her interests – her daycare is charging more and gas prices have gone up. So you could summarize her interests as childcare and transportation costs.
Her boss has no additional money to give, but cares about his employee. His interests are keeping a good employee and her general well-being. He also cares about his budget and keeping his own job, but is willing to think about what else he could offer her. Previously, he did not know her interests. Now that he knows what they are, he can try to find another way to meet them.
Maybe he can offer her ways to offset her gas costs, like rideshare, free bus passes, flex-time, a shorter week, or telecommuting. Possibly some of these could also help with her child-care costs, by reducing the amount of time her child spends at the daycare. The ability to know her interests and offer her something else that meets them (especially if he can give her choices) demonstrates that he cares about her and may actually provide a better solution. Maybe she will find that she loves working at home or having an extra day off, more than she would have appreciated the extra money that would just go to rising costs anyway.
Now you don’t need a mediator to use these ideas in your own conflicts, as long as you keep some basic principles in mind.
1) Positions are just that – they always represent underlying interests that are usually much more important than the surface positions. Explore what’s underneath.
2) Find out what the other person’s interests are by asking questions. They will appreciate that you care why they hold the position they do and will usually want you to understand. Use active listening – a time set aside when you are just listening to them and not making your own points.
3) Make sure that you understand that your own positions are just that, and may not be the only good solution. Try to identify your own underlying interests and communicate those to the other person. It is just possible that they may be able to think of ways you haven’t thought of to meet them which would work out better for both of you.
4) Repeat the other person’s interest and state your own. Ask if you got their side of the issue right. Then ask for their help in coming up with a way you can both get what you need.
Try not to overwhelm the other person all at once. You may have thought this all out, but they may need time to reflect. Try to think of it as a conversation over time that may lead to a solution. Once you really understand where they’re coming from, you may also need time to figure out how to meet their needs – this is a two-way street, and it has to work for both people or the agreement won’t last.