Interest-Based Collaboration: Generating Mutually Beneficial Solutions

A collaborative approach to decision making isn’t easy or automatic. In this article we explore the interest-based approach and the focus on collaboration to generate mutually beneficial solutions instead of concentrating on a specific “position.”

Position-Based vs. Interest-Based

The ability to develop a position and advance an agenda is an asset in many professional situations. However, this technique can be counter-productive in collaborative team settings. Success in collaboration is when everyone leaves the discussion feeling heard, confident that the things most important to them have been incorporated and trusting that their colleagues are really committed to the decision.

The position-based approach focuses on achieving predetermined outcomes, or solutions. It’s an adversarial approach in which people try to win arguments and keep others from getting more. As a result, there is often tension, frustration, deadlocked discussions and disagreement on final solutions.

An interest-based approach begins without preconceived solutions and outcomes. Individuals share what is most important to them and are interested in understanding the same from their colleagues. This approach to collaboration focuses on developing agreements aimed at satisfying the interests of all involved and generating solutions together.

How to Use an Interest-Based Approach

1. Determine Interest

Focus on interests –not positions.

  • Consider and share your own interests. What is your goal, and why? What is most important to you? What are your wants, needs, and fears? Rank your interests. An honest sharing of interests will often be reciprocated.
  • Learn what is important for others. Do not assume that you know someone else’s interests. Ask others to share their points of view and use active listening to defuse tension, increase understanding, and build relationships. Use open-ended questions, paraphrasing, summarizing and be encouraging.
  • Use neutral third-party facilitators to diffuse emotions and assist in identifying bottom-line needs and interests if all parties aren’t interested in interest-based negotiations.
2. Create Options

Generate a variety of possibilities before deciding on one.

  • Generate ideas and explore solutions with your teammates. Enable your team to expand ideas to create mutually beneficial solutions before you limit the options.
  • Refrain from making judgments, searching for a single solution, or assuming one plan will ultimately prevail. Concentrate on creating multiple answers and developing practical options for mutual gain. By finding a solution together, your team will be more invested in the outcome.
3. Jointly Determine Objective Selection Criteria

Agree on objective standards that a successful solution or decision must meet.

  • Agree on objective criteria to evaluate the success of potential solutions fairly and consistently. This increases the clarity of later discussions and allows everyone to feel that the most urgent needs are being met.

Case Examples

Case: Using a Position-Based Approach

The chair of the meeting announces, “our objective is to reach a decision on the final allocation of funds for the upcoming year.” She proposes, “we maintain the same percentage of funding for each department.”

The chair starts from a position statement and as a result, everything afterwards may be aimed at defending or debating the opening proposal. Her colleagues might be thinking that she has the answer that works for her but hasn’t asked us what we think, or they may be plotting what they could propose next. If the discussion turns into a debate, the group may not reach agreement and if they do, there may be hurt feelings and damaged relationships.

Case: Using an Interest-Based Approach

The chair of the meetings states, “the objective today is to reach a decision on the final allocation of funds for the coming year. Before we get into the details and solutions, let’s  spend a few minutes clarifying what is important to each of us about this process, and what you’d like the funding decision to achieve. For example, it is important to me that we sustain the work we started last year and leave this meeting speaking with one voice on these decisions. What is important from your perspective?”

With everyone’s interests known, the group can move onto generating different ways of allocating funds that take into consideration the interests of all. The final decision might not be one that anyone had thought of before the meeting and will be the solution most likely to work for everyone.