Positions in negotiating

Positions in negotiating

If you are in your next negotiation – look closely at what your interests are and your position.

One of the most fascinating elements that can make you win majorly (or lose spectacularly) in negotiating for something you want is the tension that lies between positions and interests. In my decade of teaching leadership negotiation skills, I see this aspect arising occasionally. In each case, the framing of an argument, if done in a ham-fisted way leads to failure. We see examples everywhere if we look closely.

The recent impasse in the United States about deciding on a budget has been described as the longest government shutdown in the US’s history with more than 800,000 government employees bereft of paychecks for a month or more. Central to this impasse between the two major governing parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, is President Trump’s desire to include a US$5.7 billion budget item to help him fulfil a campaign promise to build a wall on USA’s southern border with Mexico. Arguments amongst experts and politicians have raged from the inefficacy of such walls to the porous nature of such rugged borders.

From a negotiating standpoint, it seems Trump, whose bestselling book The Art of the Deal more than three decades ago, had burnished his reputation as a tough-talking business tycoon and expert negotiator. In reality, the recent and present situation is a reflection of someone far from that. In negotiations, we should be very clear about our interests and our positions. Our interests should be, as far as possible, not diluted significantly when agreeing on a final deal. On the contrary, our positions should always be broad enough to allow flexibility in manoeuvring during a negotiation.

An impasse happens when we insist on the supremacy of our positions versus our interests. Both parties in the US Congress agree that border security and immigration rules can be improve. The difficulty is the degree in which one side will accept it. Both parties have a range of interests to which they have varying degrees of flexibility and value. There are so many components to it that sitting and negotiating ways so that most people will get most of what they want can be done. In fact, that’s how both parties can declare a satisfactory outcome and save face.

However, the moment one party assumes a position, “I must have that Wall”, then all bets are off because that party has held just one component of a multifaceted argument to be so sacrosanct and inviolable to negotiation or compromise that it stalls the rest of the process. In recent days, the Republicans and Trump have yo-yoed from their original positions and are now offering concessions so that the Democrats will approve the Wall. Unfortunately going back to the ‘positions vs interest’ dynamic; having a budge for the Wall is now more of a political winning point rather than representing any kind of actual effective anti-alien tool. Trump appears willing to make nearly a million government employees suffer to win a political point and fulfil a campaign promise; regardless of its actual benefit to the United States. It’s part of his approach to every situation having losers and winners, and he can’t stand losing – even if others suffer for it.

The second negotiation skill that seems absolutely lacking here is the ability to win a negotiation while keeping the working relationship solid. If you are dealing with people on a daily basis, keeping a reasonably cordial relationship is essential to build mutual trust and rapport. In that vein, Trump has also failed miserably in his tit-for-tat actions in recent weeks.

Another classic example in this sphere is the complex Arab-Israeli peace process that has gone on for more than half a century with only flashes of success here and there. Again, the moment one side insists on a ‘position’ e.g “Jerusalem must be under Israel control”, negotiations often grind to a halt. If peaceful co-existence is the main ‘interest’ involved, I guarantee you some degree of compromise, shared-power or control with a third party like the United Nations being involved as a guarantor and so on will feature in any peace deal.

If you are in your next negotiation – look closely at what your interests are. These could range from multi-component elements of a deal involving the purchase of IT equipment. Your interest would be to get the best deal not only the hardware, but the software and on-site support in the following months as some new technology shift happens. What’s your possible position? We have to get it done by say July. Nothing is wrong with stating a position. But understanding the underlying interests is usually far more important than the ‘position’.

Meet the author:

David Lim is Asia’s Motivational Mentor and is best known for leading the 1st Singapore Mt Everest Expedition. Since 1999, he has given over 700 motivational and leadership presentations. Engage him with questions at contact@davidlimspeaks.com.