Tensions are high. The time has come to decide funding levels for next year, develop technical messages and guidelines, and prioritize resources in work plans. In meetings, team members are defensive, and earnestly guard what they believe is their portion of the pie. Members send complaints back to their home offices, and seem to be in constant conflict with one another… if they still communicate at all. When team members get together to make decisions, they sit on opposite sides of the table – literally and figuratively – dig in their heels, and debate endlessly until one side gives up or everyone leaves in a deadlock. The pressure mounts as the deadline for the COP approaches. Everyone dreads what may happen: that the management and operations teams won’t be able to reach an agreement, and the decision must be bounced up to the Executive Team. Sound familiar?
Here’s the irony: despite the team’s difficulties working together, everyone in the above situation wants the process to be less painful and more focused on their common goal – reducing the devastating impact of HIV/AIDs. Yet despite the fact that everyone is frustrated by the tense discussions, the team still hasn’t figured out how to break out of the confrontational patterns they’ve developed.
The ability to develop a position and skillfully advance a pre-determined agenda can be an invaluable asset in many professional situations. This technique can be counter-productive, however, when employed in a collaborative team setting. In fact, a key factor for success in interagency collaboration is team members’ ability and willingness to use an approach which allows all parties to leave the discussions feeling that they’ve been heard, confident that the things most important to them have been incorporated in the final decisions, and trusting that their colleagues are really committed to the decision.
Although critical, a collaborative approach to decision- making isn’t always easy or automatic! So what can the team in our example do differently? How can they work together more effectively?
First Let Go of Old Habits
The team members have most likely entered the meeting having determined what outcome would be best for them. They may have a plan for how they’d like to allocate resources, or maybe they’ve decided what message the team should be sending to the ministry on technical standards. They start from the position of having a solution, and are ready to “sell” it to the others. They come to the meeting prepared to win the debate, and may try to intimidate others into agreeing with their approach.
In an interest-based approach to conflict resolution, parties focus on collaborating together to generate a mutually-beneficial solution to an issue instead of concentrating on a specific “position.”
The team members are entering the meetings using what is called a position-based approach. A position-based approach focuses on achieving pre-determined outcomes, or solutions. It’s an adversarial approach in which people try to win arguments for their own side – and keep others from getting more. When team members enter group sessions using a position-based approach, they are ready for debate and ready to win… and as a result, we often see tension and frustration erupt. The same positions are continually presented on the same issues. Decision making is hijacked by the deadlocked discussions. There’s disagreement on final solutions. If one person leaves the room satisfied in their victory, another is frustrated that his or her points weren’t heard.
An alternate approach to these situations begins by letting go of preconceived solutions and outcomes. In this approach, individuals come prepared to share their interests instead of coming to the meeting prepared to present, defend, and debate a specific position. Team members tell the rest of the team what is most important to them, and why – and they are interested in understanding the same from their colleagues. This interest-based approach to collaboration focuses on developing agreements aimed at satisfying the interests of all of the parties involved. Everyone lets go of the old way of fighting over resources, and picks up a new behavior of generating solutions together that recognize and incorporate the needs, wants, and concerns of everyone at the table.
The interest-based approach allows parties to work together to find a “win-win” solution to their situation. It’s a critical tool for collaborative discussion and decision-making.
Easier Said Than Done
Despite the clear advantages of interest-based collaboration, individuals – including PEPFAR team members – often tend toward position-based approaches for many reasons. For example, a history of distrust between individuals or a lack of knowledge of other agencies’ contracting and technical approaches can make sharing information with other team members seem uncomfortable, even threatening. No one wants to go into a meeting feeling vulnerable. Plus, in a world of limited resources, team members sometimes assume that the size of the pie is fixed, and that the needs of different team members and agencies are at odds. The effort involved in building relationships, delving into the root of your own and other’s interests, and exploring options takes an initial outlay of trust, knowledge, and time.
Yet the power of an interest-based approach to transform processes and affect outcomes holds great potential for PEPFAR teams. By discussing and becoming invested in others’ interests, new options and approaches can emerge that otherwise would not be apparent. Not only are mutually- satisfactory outcomes more likely when many members’ interests are met, but an interest-based approach facilitates teams’ abilities to build constructive, positive relationships for the future – a particularly important benefit for long-term working situations.
While sounding simple, the following reminders can help to turn a potentially difficult position- based approach into a collaborative, interest- based conversation that is more likely to meet the needs of all the people involved:
- Interest: First, focus on interests – not positions.
- Options: Generate a variety of possibilities before deciding on one.
- Criteria: Agree on objective standards that a successful team solution or decision must meet.
Embracing this collaborative mindset will help you and your teammates explore, understand and communicate your interests… and maximize your chances of success.
To illustrate the value of collaborative approaches, let’s use our earlier example of the COP decision making process. Notice the contrasts in the two approaches below:
Case: Using a Position-Based Approach
The chair of the meeting starts by announcing “our objective is to reach a decision on the final allocation of funds for the upcoming year.” She says that she’s taken a look at previous year’s budgets, and proposes that “we maintain the same percentage of funding for each agency… let them make decisions on how this gets distributed across their implementing partners.”
Upon hearing this opening statement, the colleagues gathered in the room might want to roll their eyes. They may be thinking to themselves, “Once again she has the one answer that works for her, but she hasn’t even asked us what we think.” Or they might feel like telling her exactly why they disagree with the plan, and are busy plotting what they could propose next instead. If the ensuing discussion turns into a debate about the merits of the proposal, the group may not reach any agreement…and if even they do, there may be some hurt feelings and damaged relationships along the way.
The chair started from a position statement – and as a result, everything afterwards was aimed at defending or debating the opening proposal.
Case: Using a Interest-Based Approach
Using an interest-based approach, the chair of the meeting could start by stating, “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, I’d like us to 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 really important to me that we are able to sustain the work we started last year with our key implementing partner. In addition, I want all of us to leave this meeting feeling we can speak with one voice on these decisions. Those are my hopes. What is important from your perspective?”
With everyone’s most important interests known to everyone in the room, the group can then 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 – rather, the solution has emerged from the collaborative process. And it’s the solution most likely to work for everyone.
Here are more details about the specific steps in this process:
1. Determine Interest
Consider and share your own interests. What is your goal, and why? What is most important to you? Being aware of your own underlying assumptions, values and preferences – what you are most passionate about – is very helpful here. You may wish to rank your interests so you do not wind up exchanging an important outcome for something less important. Remember to share those interests with your teammates. Not only do you need to determine your own interests, but you also need to make sure others are aware of your wants, needs, and fears. A sensitive and honest sharing of interests often will be reciprocated.
Learn what is important for the others. Think about what may be most important to your colleagues and why, then ask yourself how they may perceive your own needs and values. Remember not to assume that you know someone else’s interests. In fact, the more complex the issue, the more important it is to ask others to share their points of view. When asking others about their interests remember to use active listening to defuse tension, increase understanding, and build relationships you can count on — for this negotiation and in the future. Facilitation skills such as asking open-ended questions, paraphrasing, summarizing and encouraging, are also very helpful.
2. Create Options
Brainstorm jointly to generate ideas. Most of us consider different options for solving a problem before we enter a situation. Even more important is the step of exploring solutions together with your teammates. By working with your colleagues to generate possible solutions and expand ideas, you will enable your team to create mutually-beneficial solutions before you limit the options. During this period, it’s critical for all team members to refrain from making judgments, searching for a single solution, or assuming that one plan will ultimately prevail. Concentrate instead on creating multiple answers, developing practical options for mutual gain, and proposing solutions that others – and you – may find attractive. Another bonus: by giving other parties a role in finding a solution, your teammates automatically become more invested in the eventual outcome.
3. Jointly Determine Objective Selection Criteria
Agree on criteria that will produce a desirable outcome, and be used to evaluate the success of potential solutions. Criteria should be as objective as possible so the team can evaluate potential solutions fairly. By first articulating objective criteria that will be universally applied across all portfolios, the group establishes fair and consistent standards. This increases the clarity of the later discussion, and allows everyone to leave the room satisfied that the country’s most urgent needs are being met.
Common Stumbling Blocks
You are faced with someone whom you perceive will be “tough”.
- Active listening and a true effort to get to the root of another party’s interests are essential tools in turning negotiation sessions into conversations for mutual gain. Communication is critical to finding solutions to joint problems. Ask questions to understand the other party’s interests, and build trust by sharing information, which will help all parties build relationships and get to the heart of the issue. Remember that the “either / or” choice is usually a false construct.
The other party isn’t interested in an interest-based approach.
- When faced with conflict, a common instinct is to strike back, give in, or break off discussions. When one or more parties in a conversation aren’t consciously steering toward a “win-win” process, refocusing on the relational aspects of a conversation may yield more positive results. If other parties aren’t initially interested in interest-based negotiations, consider the assistance of a neutral third-party. Facilitators are often helpful in diffusing emotions and in assisting groups to identify their bottom-line needs and interests.
Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury.
Getting Past No: Negotiating Your Way from Confrontation to Cooperation by William Ury.
The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School at http://www.pon.harvard.edu/
This resource is a part of a series of articles created under the USAID-funded AIDSTAR project. The principles in these resources can be widely applied to a variety of contexts where different groups work together closely on a shared initiative or different teams within an organization need to work together more effectively.