I recently went to the movies with a friend. We walked into the movie theater and I identified where we should sit while my friend identified another spot. They wanted to to sit in the front row in front of the middle walkway. I wanted to sit further up and on the isle. “Let’s sit here.” “What? No. Let’s sit here.” I tend to be a people pleaser so I caved right away and sat where she wanted to sit, but I felt a little bitter about it. While I was busy brooding and shoving popcorn in my face, my friend turned to me and said, “See, if you sit here, you can put your feet up on the railing and not worry about getting in trouble or kicking someone else’s chair.” After hearing that, I completely understood why they wanted to sit in this position. I told them the reason I wanted to sit elsewhere is because I usually have to take a bathroom break and I don’t like to have to cross in front of a bunch of people. With that, we moved down closer to the end, while still having the railing.

This story illustrates a key point in conflict resolution basics: Positions and Interests. “Positions” refer to what you say you want. In this case, the positions were the two different areas to sit in the movie theater. “Interests” are the reasons behind the positions. My friend wanted to be able to put their feet up on the railing. I wanted to be able to have an easy exit in the middle of the movie.

Positions Interests
What you say you want Why you want what you say you want
Expressed by a statement:

  • I want… I need…
Focused on the “why” behind the statement:

  • I want/need… because… so that… in order to…

When conversing over positions, it is easy for them to be incompatible. You can’t do both. When you shift to negotiating or working with interests, there are more options to choose from. Sometimes it can create space for innovation and the creation of more options.

Here are some ways you can help yourself uncover your interests behind your positions as well as ways to uncover others’ interests.

Uncover your interests Uncover others’ interests
Why do I want that? Why do you want that?
Why is that important to me? Why is that important to you?
What problem am I trying to solve? What problem are you trying to solve?

Focusing on interests instead of positions can feel hard! If you look around, you may notice that we live in a society that grounds itself in positions: Liberal, Conservative, Pro-life, Pro-choice, True, Untrue, I am a good person, They are a bad person, This is right, That is wrong, etc. It is how our society seems to make sense of the world we live in and who we are in it. It gives (in my mind) a false sense of identity and expectation our ego hungers for. At the same time, it gets in our way of engaging in dialogue, understanding what is important to each other, and designing effective and constructive solutions.

I encourage you to expand your experience communicating and solving problems within yourself and with others. Look for the underlying interests behind the positions. How does that change the way you see your boss, your teammate, your roommate, the person on the news? And how does that change the way you engage with them? How does it change how you advocate for yourself and your needs?

For more reading on Positions and Interests, check out a classic in conflict resolution literature, Getting to Yes, by Fisher and Ury.

By: Teresa Ralicki, Ombuds
University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office