Mapping Your Interests in Conflict, Collaboration or Internal Dilemmas

A very good friend of mine, I call The Wave Rider, has just asked me how she might map out her Interests in a complex collaboration/conflict situation at work. I thought this was a really good question, and one we all face, and so I am posting quite a detailed treatment of this central problem in  conflict.

First let me remind you of the crucial distinction between Positions, our automatic, knee jerk, self righteous, pattern recognition stances we take. ‘We want the world and we want it now!’ as the rock group The Doors sang and our real underlying Interests. I will use capital letters for these words to show I mean a very specific contrasted meaning between the words Position and Interest. Conducting a conflict on the basis of Positions condemns us to game playing, arm wrestling, win-lose power struggles, and makes it very hard to expand solution space and find truly creative ways to resolve the conflict. A Position is usually a narrowly focused, rigid, even fundamentalist, demand for something. And it tends to provoke equally Positional thinking on the other side. Now we have a stand off. My friend Jon Haidt calls our unconscious pattern-recognizing, self-righteous mind, ourElephant. So Positional thinking is our Elephant at work, using our Rider or conscious, rational mind to justify our Positional Thinking after we have jumped to a Position, and not to question if our Position meets our real needs.

In contrast, having our conscious mind or Rider in Jon’s terms, focusing on your underlying Interests, actually means you are trying to meet them, not some Elephant-driven, performative Position or demand that may or may not meet your needs. It is not knee-jerk, pattern- recognition, but considered, mindful examination of our Interests.

I list below my answer to my friend’s question: the ways to better uncover our underlying interests. And of course, once we do that, preferably in writing, as our Elephant doesn’t like written analysis, we are much better able to help the other side uncover their Interests too using the same techniques, with out fear of losing sight of our own Interests. And with both side’s Interests on the table, we greatly expand solution space.

We will also find one of my friend Bill Ury’s great insights: Interests can be common or shared even in a serious conflict. It is no side’s interests that the West Bank of the river Jordan becomes a nuclear wasteland. Interests can be different: I like blue, you like red and we can each wear what we like. And Interests can be conflicting, but the common interests and creative ways to expand the size of the cake mean that we can compensate for some win-lose or splitting the difference. And in our Information Economy far more things are non-rival: I can know something and if you know it too, I have lost nothing by sharing it; indeed we can now collaborate and make something really great happen.

So how do we uncover out Interests/needs in conflict, collaboration, or even in our own internal mental dilemmas, given that our resistance to looking at our real needs is often a symptom of our internal dilemmas and fears? So many people talk about Interests when they are really talking about dressed up Positions posing as Interests. So how do we navigate from Positions to underlying Interests?

  1. The Five Whys/Root Cause Analysis. This is simple way that I derived from the Root Cause analysis used by Toyota to find out why a quality problem exists. When a part fails in a car, they ask why repeatedly until they drill down to the root cause of the problem. Why did a part fail? Because it wasn’t fitted properly. Why wasn’t it fitted properly? Because the assembly process was not error proofed. Why was it not error proofed? Because the error proofing system was not applied and so on. This approach uses a similar method in conflict to get us from our knee jerk Positions to our underlying Interests, by simply asking ‘why?’. ‘Why do we want that, of any Position we take’. I want us to move to California. Why? Because the climate is better there. Why is that important? Because I run a lot and want to do it in the sunshine. Why is that important? Because personal fitness is important to me. Why is that important? Because my happiness is closely linked to how fit I feel. And so on. What this does is then allow asking, is moving to California the only way I can be happy? So moving to California is a Position. And being happy might be the underlying Interest that could be met in many other ways. So maybe I don’t have to divorce my partner, who doesn’t want to move to California? Maybe there is a creative alternative, like moving to somewhere else with a better climate or whatever that I can explore once I have nailed both my Interests and in turn theirs.
  2. The Five Core Emotional Concerns of Most People. Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro in their interesting book ‘Beyond Reason: Using Emotion as You Negotiate’ suggests there are five main fundamental needs most people share:Appreciation: your thoughts feelings and actions are acknowledged as having merit,Affiliation: you are treated as a colleague, Autonomy: you decide important matters that affect you, Status: your standing where deserved is fully recognized, Role: you so define your role and its activities that you find them fulfilling. So one way to explore your needs in any conflict, would be to use these five headings and list what your needs in the situation are under these headings. (In #4 below I add two of my own to this list:Curiosity and Creativity)
  3. Our Fears. We are wired by evolution to be fearful in order to survive, and to be more inclined to avoid threats than approach opportunities. So it could be helpful in any conflict to list our fears openly and honestly. What is the downside to the situation, the threats to our well being? Face and admit our fears, in writing. And then let go of them for a moment and list the upsides, the opportunities, again in writing, and from these two exercises better understand our needs, around both our fears and our more positive desires of the world.
  4. Our Core Curiosity and Creativity. I tend to think two of my greatest drives areCuriosity and Creativity. So I usually ask of any situation, what are my needs to learn new stuff and to create new stuff in this situation? This may not apply to everyone, but it is worth a try, especially as part of a process that is about creative conflict approaches. And without curiosity and creativity life gets kinda boring. :) So why not add this to our core human needs list to check out in any conflict or collaboration. Of course, finding ways to build trust makes this curiosity and creativity easier in a conflict situation, makes our fears less dominant.
  5. Our Long Term Goals. Ideally the Interests or needs we try to meet in any conflict or collaboration should meet our longer term Interests, Goals or needs. And we are wired for short-termism, so mapping out perhaps a five year career plan or whatever, might really help us decide our more short term needs. I dated a woman once, who had a personal organizer with her life time career goals, five year career goals, annual personal goals and monthly plans in it. Whenever she faced a conflict or decision about what to do in a situation, she simply looked at all these longer term plans and used them to help make her choice in that context. I just looked at her website and she has met all those long term career goals of 25 years back it would appear. Of course, whether this makes her happy….
  6. What Makes Us Happy. I have this crazy idea that we should navigate conflict and collaboration with some idea of what makes us happy. After all is that what meeting our Interests, needs, goals is supposed to do? Give us satisfaction, improve our lives. Wow, sorry to challenge your sense that conflict is associated with misery but try it on for size.
  7. Consolidate Above into a Mind Map Especially if you are a visual thinker, it might help to align all the above approaches on a single Mind Map (using the Tony Buzan approach) that shows it all at once and then develop a priority Interests/Needs/Goals listing to drive your handling of the conflict or collaboration. And this Mind Map might also suggest additional ways into your own unique Interest/Needs in the situation. See:

Finally, of course, if you have done all this in writing, it makes it feel much safer to then empathetically go round the other side of the table in conflict or collaboration and map out the Interests of the other side, what lies behind their Positions. And you are then on the right road for a very creative expansion of solution space to find ways to meet the Interests of each side, not just their Positions, their demands.

I liked this example below from Tony Buzan, whose work on Mind Maps is simply awesome, though not for those who like being miserable,  of a Mind Map on Time Management, given of course that how we spend our time is a major source of both internal and external conflict, maybe even a major cause of marital breakdown? See also

Footnote: Thanks to my friend Bill Ury and to his co-author of ‘Getting to Yes’ Roger Fisher for first bringing my attention to the fundamental difference between Positional and Interest based bargaining that saved my skin in many potentially violent confrontations in the auto industry.  Sadly since I wrote this footnote, Roger Fisher died on August 25th 2012 and I thank him for his inspiration and dedicate this re-post to his memory.

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About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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