Conflict can be resolved if opposing positions and interests are clearly understood.

Using “both/and” thinking can move parties toward solutions.

An orange being separated
The peel and juice of an orange is a common analogy for interests and positions.

Arguments, especially public ones, are often fought on the level of positions—what one wants to happen or what should be done. “Position” is defined in the Conflict Management Glossary as a demand. “I want this, and you want that.” Elected and appointed officials will take a "position" on a particular issue—either for or against it. Positions can generate problems because each person focuses on only their needs and there seems to be little room for compromise.

In democratic politics, problems are resolved with a vote. But when voting is not possible or appropriate, arguing over positions can be ineffective and sometimes destructive. People become rooted in their positions and often move farther apart. Positions usually define a problem too narrowly, stating only one solution when others are possible.

One’s interest in an issue is the underlying reason behind a particular position. Interests may be broadly defined as principles, values or belief systems, and must be addressed if a conflict is to be resolved fairly. An important step in resolving any conflict is to help people understand each other’s interests behind their positions.

Kevin Wolf writes in The Makings of a Good Meeting that positions are proposals as to how interests might be satisfied and resolved through addressing the real issues of the dispute. Many conflicts which appear to be unavoidable win-lose situations are more manageable when redefined (or reframed) in terms of underlying interests:

Imagine two children arguing over who gets the last orange. Both children take the position of wanting the whole orange and as the adult, you intervene since your interest is peace and quiet. A fair solution, then, could be to cut the orange in half and give a half to each child.

However, what if one child wants to eat the orange while the other wants the rind for a science project? Had the children explained their underlying reasons for wanting the orange (their interests), a win-win solution could have given both children what they wanted. The best solution: give one child the rind and the other child the orange flesh. The conflict is resolved because the interests of both parties have been identified and met.

People in conflict often confuse positions and interests. They define what they want, in all-or-nothing terms and seek solutions that fit their positions. Yet it is vital to consider the views of others as important or legitimate. If people fully explain why they want or do not want something, it often turns out that they have some interests, values or beliefs in common. This can lead to identifying mutual strategies to solve the conflict.

However, we are not used to thinking in terms of interests. In fact, we often are unaware of our own. Through active listening, both sides should discover the stated or underlying interests of each other. Active listening involves using verbal techniques such as asking probing questions, listening for the feeling behind a statement and summarizing the words and feelings of the other. Active listening is really about seeking to understand before seeking to be understood. When interests are understood and legitimatized, possibilities are brought forth to satisfy the interests of both parties.

Communicating through Conflict is a program offered by Michigan State University Extension. This interactive workshop provides participants with tools and techniques to manage conflict situations more effectively. Identifying interests behind positions is one of the many skills taught in this program.

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