Chasing the negotiation

Nov. 14, 2014
Using an interest-based approach to resolve workplace conflicts

Using an interest-based approach to resolve workplace conflicts

BY Heidi Emmerling Muñoz, PhD

True or False: The best way to address a conflict at work is to compromise.

Many may be initially surprised that the answer is false. After all, compromise is a sacred "Mom and apple pie" concept. Each party gives up something valuable to keep the peace. But that is just the point. Compromise is a lose-lose scenario. Think of crown margins being compromised or security being compromised - this is not such a rosy scenario.

Interest-based negotiation focuses on win-win outcomes where all parties get their interests met. I first learned of this concept when I became a dental hygiene professor at Sacramento City College within the Los Rios Community College District (LRCCD) in 2007. I attended the training and was so intrigued by the concept that I became a certified interest-based approach (IBA) facilitator to help others learn these concepts. I use these principles in my position as a union delegate and as a faculty member (with colleagues, supervisors, and students). I certainly relied on these principles when I was interim director of the dental hygiene program within LRCCD.


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However, I even use these strategies informally at home (Where should we go on vacation? You want Las Vegas; I want Hawaii. Both of our interests are met if we go on a cruise - 24-hour glitz, drinking, and gambling while on the water while seeing many beaches and sunshine) or conducting personal business outside of my "real" job (You won't refund the purchase price? How about x, y, or z?). Anybody who negotiates in any setting should be able to incorporate IBA principles.

LRCCD has been using the interest-based approach for 21 years in all of the business dealings, and it was even used to negotiate our very solid collective bargaining contract. But it doesn't have to be used just on a large scale or for union contracts. IBA can be used when working with anyone who is earnestly interested in negotiating issues. LRCCD believes in this so strongly that it sponsors any interested employee (faculty, staff, and administrators all participate on a first name, no title basis) to attend the three-day training. The district not only covers the cost of the training; it also provides the training during normal work hours (so it pays for subs), and provides all materials (books, binders, markers, etc.), meals, and single occupancy (no room sharing) lodging to attend the training. We are a very large district, so sponsoring IBA training is a significant investment.

The concept of IBA is based on the book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William L. Ury, a product of the Harvard Negotiation Project. It espouses that positional negotiation is pointless and that we should focus more on each party's interest than on each other's position (see Table 1, Positions vs. Interests). What happens first is separating the people from the problem. Emotions and egos can become entangled, which adversely affects the ability to see the other party's position clearly. This results in adversarial rather than cooperative interactions.

The next step involves focusing on interests, not positions. People need to ask questions to explore others' interests as well as talk about their own interests. After defining interests, brainstorming, broadening options, and looking for mutual gain are involved. Next, everyone generates objective criteria for evaluating each idea. This step involves fair standards and fair procedures. Using the objective criteria, each potential solution generated during the brainstorming is measured using the criteria developed by all parties.

The book's authors address problems stemming from negotiating with those who are more powerful or who might not be negotiating in good faith. They recommend that people should prepare a BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) prior to the negotiation. A BATNA is what can be done independently, without cooperation from the other party. They assert that the better the BATNA, the greater the power. If the other party isn't negotiating in good faith, then the other party should be encouraged and coached to use principled negotiation. If they continue to attack using positional bargaining, refuse to retaliate and redirect their attacks on the problem. The authors term this tactic "Negotional Jujitsu," after the martial art in which the attacker's blows are deflected.

Table 1: Positions vs. Interests

Positions (What) Limited Pie

Interests (Why) Expanded Pie

Things you say you want: I want a raise.

Underlying motivations: Keep up with standard salaries, feel respected and appreciated, buy a house, pay for childcare

Demands: Clean up your instruments right now.

Needs, values, concerns: Safety, need to stay on schedule, need to keep your instruments ready to use, responsibility

Terms and conditions: I will not help out up front until I am done doing everything else I believe is more important.

Aspirations, future hopes, standards: Professional quality, meaningful contribution, collaboration

Things you say you will or will not do: I will not take your X-rays until you apologize.

Feelings, emotions: Hurt, sadness, anger Needs: Respect, consideration

Despite these strategies, sometimes it is helpful to involve a third party to fuse the views of the opposing parties. If that fails and the other party continues to use dirty tricks such as lying, psychological abuse, or pressure tactics, the authors describe recognizing the trick being played (so that it can be ignored), drawing attention to the trick being played, and/or negotiating about the negotiation itself, such as coming up with new ground rules.

Getting Ready and Getting Together

Using Getting to Yes as the foundation, LRCCD generated its own IBA process (see Figure 1: Elements of the Interest-Based Approach to Problem Solving). The two phases are "Getting Ready" and "Getting Together." The first phase (Getting Ready) is for each party to complete the first four steps individually:

• Naming the issue or story (also known as the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about)

• Articulating one's own individual interests

• Identifying any constraints to accomplishing the interests (including anticipating others' interests)

• Coming up with alternatives in light of the interests and constraints. This is also the step where each party figures out its BATNA (which will not be shared with the other party).

Note that each party can be one or more people with similar objectives. So in a small dental office, it could be the dental hygienist as one party and the dental assistant as the other. It could be the front office staff as one party and the back office staff as the other party, and so forth. After each party has completed the first four steps on their own, then all parties start Phase 2 (getting together). Repeat the first four steps as a group, learning what the other party sees as the issue, and hearing each other's interests.

Together, the groups also brainstorm all possible solutions. The beautiful metaphor for this brainstorming step is to do away with the concept of one pie with only finite resources to be divided in a certain proportion; instead, add to the pie. In this step, I have seen some amazing things happen, where the other party comes up with solutions that meet my interests better than my own initially proposed solutions. In the second phase, all groups then add two additional steps: decide on mutually acceptable criteria to evaluate each proposed solution, and vote/commit to the agreed-on solution.

The physical and logistical space is very important in the negotiating process. For example, everyone should have a seat and be able to see notes as they are being transcribed. In the seating position, be mindful of having different stakeholders sit side by side vs. apart from each other. If these are groups of parties, attempt to avoid having people sitting in their groups. For the notes, large (25 x 30 inch) sheets of paper written with visible markers (no yellow), alternating colors with every point, and taped on the walls works well. All parties in the negotiating process should easily be reminded of each person's issue, interest, constraints, and alternatives. This process works better than whiteboards because papers remain a more permanent record for use at future meetings, if necessary.

Figure 1: Elements of the Interest-Based Approach to Problem Solving
Source: Los Rios Community College District

Additionally, whenever possible, have a neutral party facilitate the negotiation process. The facilitator writes items that are brought forth, making sure contributions are balanced between all parties. The facilitator leads the discussion and moves the group from step to step, and so forth. If the negotiation is between the dental assistant and the front desk, perhaps the dental hygienist could facilitate. If it is between the front office and the back office, then maybe the dentist could facilitate. The point is to get someone as neutral as possible. Finally, it is essential that all parties buy in to the process and agree on the ground rules of the negotiation. All parties should contribute to the process and ground rules to assure a greater degree of success.

Step 1: The issue - Everyone involved might think they understand the issue very clearly. However, it is important not to skip this step. In the Getting Together phase, it is amazing to hear the different information that comes forth, of which all parties were not previously aware. When defining the issue, use the facts to tell the story. Avoid emotions and name calling. Compile who, what, when, where type of facts to tell the "what I know for sure" story.

Step 2: The Interests - Often people negotiate positions (tangible items they want) without exploring why they want it. A position is a "what" and an interest is a "why." When fleshing out the interests, especially in the Getting Ready phase, try to get to the root of why it is you want what you think you want.

In the training sessions, facilitators often say that until you have asked "why" at least five times, you are still dealing with a position. Example: I want a raise. Why? Because I want to be on par with the rest of my peers in the industry. Why? Because it is unfair that I have been in this industry for 20 years and make less than some people just graduating. Notice we are getting closer-we are getting to fairness so this should be written down as an interest. We could continue: Why? Because I have developed people and instrumentation skills in my 20 years of practice that cannot be taught in two years of school and I should be recognized for that. So we are getting closer to the interests in this hypothetical dialogue -fairness and recognition are the issue and the raise is the position.

Approaching the negotiation while focusing on the interests will yield more options (pie) than the take-it-or-leave-it, finite options of dividing only one pie. The raise might be what you think best meets your needs but maybe what would meet your needs better would be a better vacation package, a commission remuneration structure, or even a "World's Greatest Dental Hygienist" plaque on the wall. The point is you don't really know what your interests are until you have gone through the inventory and asked why numerous times. Be prepared to answer why during the Getting Together phase as well. Also, try to anticipate the why of the other party's position by role playing within your group.

Step 3: Legal or logistical constraints - For example, consider the dental practice act when brainstorming possible solutions to meet one another's interests. You might want to work nights and weekends, but if the dentist is not in the office at that time, then you would need to come up with alternatives to address this constraint. Consider also the finite number of treatment rooms, instruments, office location, etc.

Step 4: Alternatives - This is the brainstorming. Write everything down. Don't discount any suggestion at this point. Everyone needs to be heard and have their suggestions recorded. Items will be whittled down in Step 5 when all parties get together. While still in the Getting Ready phase, each party needs to explore their BATNA. The better your BATNA, the more power you have. Preserve your power by not revealing your BATNA in the Getting Together phase. Just know if your BATNA is better than the direction of the negotiation, you can get your interests met better without interacting with this party.

For example, if you already have an offer for double your current salary (your BATNA) but you really like your current employer and would settle for a 10% increase and a plaque on the wall, you sit back and see what your employer is willing to do. If your employer is offering a 5% increase and the privilege of collecting all the garbage at the end of the day, then you know nothing acceptable is forthcoming and can safely move on.

Step: 5 Options evaluation - As a group, come up with an objective rubric to evaluate each solution listed in Step 4. The rubric needs to address the interests of all parties involved. As a group, evaluate each solution based on the rubric and vote on the solutions (thumbs up, thumbs down; put check marks next to your top three solutions, etc.).

Step 6: Commit - If there is no unanimous consensus, there is no commitment. Everyone in the group must be OK with the outcome. Decide who is going to do what by when and make a physical record of the agreement. Post it in a prominent, observable place. Celebrate.

Note that IBA principles work well when everyone involved values the relationships, as well as recognizes how the process of IBA has the potential to strengthen team bonds. The relationships of people in a group are essential to an effective process and outcome. The objectives include:

• Introducing attitudes, skills, and practices that promote effective staff relationships

• Encouraging essential elements of techniques for effective communication, decision making, and consensus building

• Developing strategies for building trust and reducing conflict

• Providing avenues for negotiations

• Providing tools for continuous improvement of processes and relationship activities.

Trust building is important here. In our workshops, we implement many trust- and team-building activities to cement the relationships. Once there is the foundation of trust and interest in preserving and building relationships, negotiations and the relationships themselves become much richer and more productive. It's a definite win all around. For more reading and information on IBA, see the resources listed below. RDH

Heidi Emmerling Muñoz, PhD, is a professor of English at Cosumnes River College, a delegate to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union, and an IBA facilitator through the LRCCD. Prior to her current position, Dr. Muñoz was a CODA site consultant with the ADA, and interim director and professor of dental hygiene at Sacramento City College. She has written numerous articles and columns and is a frequent contributor to RDH. Dr. Muñoz can be reached at [email protected].


1. Fisher R, Ury W. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. New York: Penguin. 1981.
2. Glaser T. Conflict Research Consortium Book Summary: Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Dealing Constructively with Intractable Conflicts. Colorado State University. 2005. http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/example/fish7513.htm. Accessed 13 June 2014
3. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Inventing Options for Mutual Gain. 1998. http://www.va.gov/adr/invent.html Accessed 13 June 2014.
4. Kotev S. Aikido and Conflict Resolution: What's the Connection? Aiki-Extensions.org. http://www.aiki-extensions.org/pubs/kotev_aikido_conflict.pdf Accessed 13 June 2014.
5. Susskind L. Good for You, Great for Me: Finding the Trading Zone and Winning at Win-Win Negotiation. New York: Public Affairs. 2014.
6. The Interest Based Approach: Beyond IBA. Los Rios Community College District [Sacramento]. 2014. http://www.losrios.edu/hr/2012%20Staff%20Development%20Page/IBA_Newsletter_Spring_2014.pdf Accessed 13 June 2014.
7. Ury W. Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations. New York: Bantam. 1991.