Interest Based Negotiations

Interest based negotiations are a technique that can be incredibly valuable in resolving complex and contentious natural resource issue debates. In fact this technique can be used to resolve any type of dispute or impasse, and can also be used by an individual seeking to understand the motivations and goals of other individuals and organizations.

Interest based negotiations hinge on one single word: “why”

Generally speaking organizations, agencies, and individuals come to the table with predetermined outcomes they desire. Often times these predetermined and specific outcomes are mutually exclusive of other peoples predetermined and specific outcomes. These outcomes are called positions. An example: I want full reservoir levels, I want summer recreation flows, I want no paddlers on my river, I am opposed to any releases of water. Two or more people or groups that are rooted in their positions will often quickly reach a stalemate.

For example, two children run up to their mother severely upset. The mother calms them down and asks them what is wrong. One child says “I want that orange and there is only one!” The other child says the same thing. These kids are rooted in their position and it seems obvious neither will entirely get what they want. The mother considers cutting the orange in half as a means of teaching the kids to share. Before she does, she asks the children why they want the orange. It turns out that one needed the peel of the orange for a craft project, and the other wanted to eat the orange. She was able to make both kids happy. Their positions were mutually exclusive, but their interests were totally compatible. This same dynamic can play out in large rooms of people with diverse goals for one resource or area.

The goal in an interest based exercise or negotiations is to boil down everyone’s interests to the smallest most basic level by continually asking why, why, why, etc.

For example:

I don’t want paddlers on my favorite trout stream.
- why ?–
Because they ruin my experience.
- why ? –
Because they scream and yell on the water.
- why does that ruin your experience? -
Because I prefer quiet while I am fishing.
-If they were quieter you wouldn’t mind their presence?-
I guess not.

In this hypothetical example, the angler was lead from a position that was a stone wall, to an interest (a quiet angling experience) that allows for both paddlers and anglers to enjoy the river if measures are taken to educate paddlers to be quieter. By pressing the question of why, positions can be boiled down to one, or a series of interests that underlie the position. While positions can typically be defended with a yes or a no, interests can have real and meaningful resolutions.

If a large room of people all write down a handful of their interests, an amazing thing happens. There is overlap, and lots of it, often in unexpected ways. You may find allies that you never anticipated and that many issues you thought were going to provide friction are actually easily resolved. What is left over after removing mutually compatible interests is a list of the work you have ahead of you. You may find that your position of wanting summer recreational releases cannot be met in concert with other’s interests, but your interest of restoring reliable paddling opportunities to the river is easily met and compatible with other interests. In short, “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

There is another side to asking why a lot. It sometimes leads others to make statements that are incriminating. Most likely someone at the table has money and greed behind their positions. Forcing them to explain their interests can place their requests in the appropriate light. Other times there are false or flexible assumptions behind people’s positions that can be revealed through asking why. A very common example of this is that homeowners on reservoirs very often falsely assume that recreational releases will quickly drain their lake and therefore stake out positions opposed to releases. In other situations the true interests behind some people’s position is illegal or inappropriate and asking them why will lead to a point where they have no credible answer. An example came from a meeting with some government officials regarding a ban on paddling a stretch of river. As we pulled layers away from their position that paddling was inappropriate on the reach, the final defense they offered was that paddlers “impacted its specialness.” At that point we knew that whatever the true interest behind the ban was indefensible and inappropriate. With that in mind, we appealed their ban.

It is important to realize that not all interests carry equal weight. Some are required by the weight of law (such as protecting endangered species), some are simply supported by law (such as river access), some are irrelevant to the law (such as higher reservoir levels), and others are downright illegal. Likewise, some interests have a strong ethical basis, while others are unethical. Some interests are economically supported and others are not. In other words, there are accepted and at times required lenses to analyze specific interests and proposals. It is critical to understand the power structure created by law. Know your rights, and defend them.

The following is a list of recommended steps toward successful negotiations:

  • Negotiate with Integrity – Be honest and upfront because you have nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to hide. River stewardship is something that is supported by law, ethically defensible, good for rivers, and good for communities. Integrity matters and it is our strongest asset in negotiations.
  • Be Respectful – No matter how other groups or individuals try to steer discussions, keep it professional and respectful. When other people veer from a respectful dialog it only makes them look bad and out of control. Keep your temper in check - there is a fine line and a huge difference between passion and anger. It is okay to challenge proposals and interests, but it is not advisable to attack individual people.
  • Build and Foster Relationships – Be yourself, and talk to people. It is amazing how productive it can be to really get to know people on all sides of an issue and it can really help you understand where they are coming from. When shared interests are found, make a note of them and foster coalitions on individual issues.
  • Represent with Focus – Most organizations have a mission statement. AW volunteers should be familiar with the AW mission and use it to reflect on all proposals and on their own interests. It should be your negotiations mantra, and you should not waver from representing rivers and the people that enjoy them. Oftentimes, one must put one’s community before oneself.
  • Agree to Disagree – Let small differences of opinion go in order to keep the greater dialog moving ahead. You don’t have to concede, just let the person know you can agree to disagree, and your relationship and pride can remain intact. If issues are not likely to come back up as stumbling blocks, consider putting them behind you.
  • Be Creative – Good ideas resonate. If you have a good idea and can promote it to your negotiating group, the chances are that it will be endorsed by the group. Brainstorm ideas on how to meet other people’s interests as well as your own and present proposals in as appealing a format as possible. Admit it openly when you overlook things, but don’t stop thinking and dreaming and throwing ideas out there for consideration.
  • Really Listen – Nothing is more important than listening to other people’s interests and ideas. Listening is the foundation of respect, and showing that you really are listening to people, even if you disagree, will build respect. Listening is also your best tool in building proposals and ideas that work.
  • Employ a Neutral Trained Facilitator – A third party with training in facilitation and dispute resolution can be invaluable in reaching the best possible resolution to an issue. Good facilitators can map out parties’ interests and guide the group through the process of respectfully resolving issues in an organized manner. A bad or biased facilitator is far worse than no facilitator, so chose carefully, or go it alone.
  • Agree on Ground Rules – Each meeting or negotiation session should have a set of ground rules that all parties agree on. These could include listening while others are talking, not sharing statements made with the press, challenging ideas not attacking people, staying on task, etc.

Finally, it should be noted that there are usually alternative pathways to a resolution if negotiations fail. Often these options are in the form of litigation or otherwise having your issue resolved for you by a third party. It is widely accepted that the most meaningful, mutually beneficial, and workable resolutions come from agreement on the local level, and therefore abandoning negotiations should be a last resort. While negotiating you should always have your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) and your WATNA (worst alternative to a negotiated agreement) in mind. When the negotiations impact your interests at a level below what you feel certain you could get through other pathways, let the other parties know that your “threshold of pain” has been reached and that you are ready to walk away from the negotiations unless the negotiations change course.

Know your rights, know your interests, and know your BATNA and WATNA before starting any negotiations. Good Luck!

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