Using Interest-Based Negotiation

Written by: Chester C. Warzynski and S. Clinton Sidle

Leaders and professionals in higher education operate in a fast-paced, complex, and changing work environment in which they are frequently faced with diverse and often conflicting perspectives and opinions. And while having many different points of view fosters an interesting and rich learning environment, it also challenges leaders to understand these differences, negotiate agreements, and resolve conflicts. Given the complexity of work today, it is important that individuals, groups, and teams learn how to engage in dialogue, learn from each other, and negotiate differences while maintaining healthy business and personal relationships and effective teamwork.

Negotiation and Conflict Management for Academic Leaders online seminarOne of the major challenges in negotiating a mutually acceptable outcome between two or more parties is to establish open and constructive discourse and frame the situation as an opportunity for learning.

Interest-based negotiation is a process that has proved to be effective in building on common experiences, focusing on interests and needs, and using a structured process of inquiry that leads to a deeper understanding of each person's viewpoint and learning while at the same time resolving issues, reaching agreement, and evolving a stronger relationship.

This approach to negotiation argues that it is possible to facilitate the negotiation process through participating in sensemaking and translation activities prior to the actual negotiations. For example, it is possible to examine the negotiators' mental models, affirm cultural and personal identities, identify common experiences, construct meaningful and integrative propositions, define the negotiating context, and construct an environment conducive to negotiation—all in advance of the actual negotiations.

Growing evidence supports this approach. For example, in a study of mental models of negotiators, Van Boven and Thompson (2003) found that optimal settlements were attained by negotiators who had a greater understanding of the context and payoff structure of the negotiation; had greater skill in applying integrative processes of exchanging and using information, and trading issues of differential importance, i.e., engaging in sensemaking; and had greater adaptability in adjusting their mental model to that of other negotiators.

Subscribe to Academic Leader newsletterAn essential component of the negotiation process is creating a supporting learning environment for the negotiations. The need to develop a comfortable space and environment for genuine dialogue in negotiations has been recognized by many consultants and organizations as critical to success (Kahane, 2004; Fisher and Shapiro, 2005; and Fisher et al., 1997).

Dialogue is an integral part of the interest-based negotiation process. The conditions for successful dialogue are empathy, respect, and warmth. These conditions facilitate mutual understanding and learning. To put it in terms of a negotiation context: two or more parties are engaged in dialogue for the purpose of resolving issues, meeting their needs, and maintaining their identities. Each person is presenting his or her own interests and needs in the form of a proposal and trying to get the other person to accept the proposal as a way of meeting his or her interests and needs. For agreement to occur, both parties must be able to interpret and understand their needs, values, and identities through sensemaking and be able to translate and integrate those interests and needs with the other person's interests and needs while maintaining or enhancing their identities. The outcome of this interaction, if successful, is an agreement—a joint meaning and a common interpretation of the context and mutual affirmation of each person's identity.

To accomplish this outcome, specific principles and ground rules can be established to guide the interest-based negotiation process and establish an environment of learning. The principles and guidelines associated with the interest-based negotiation process include the following:


  1. Understand that successful negotiation is not an adversarial process, but one that establishes a collaborative framework for creative problem solving.
  2. Recognize that the needs and interests of conflicting parties must be addressed if there is to be a long-term solution.
  3. Understand that negotiation is an ongoing process and that the outcome of the negotiation will affect the long-term relationship between the parties.
  4. The goal is to find mutually acceptable hopes and options for moving forward.
  5. Wise and durable outcomes result when the interested and affected parties voluntarily participate in the negotiation and decision-making process.
  6. The best solutions to issues are generated from the needs and concerns the parties bring to the table, not their positions.
  7. Acting in good faith is critical to good outcomes.
  8. Each person's interests are advanced by respecting the views of others.
  9. The goals of the negotiation will be best achieved by relationships characterized by presence, mutuality, trustworthy behavior, responsiveness, flexibility, open discourse, and learning.
  10. It is the responsibility of all parties to work toward a mutually satisfying outcome.

Ground rules:

  1. Commitments will be made thoughtfully and will be kept.
  2. Participants agree not to employ delay as a tactic to avoid an undesirable result. Delay that is necessary to clarify points and further understanding is acceptable until clarity and understanding is achieved.
  3. Participants agree to listen carefully, ask questions to understand, and make statements to explain or educate.
  4. Participants agree to monitor their level of participation to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to be heard.
  5. Participants agree to respect the personal integrity, hopes, concerns, motivation, values, and options of the other participants, even if they do not agree with the conclusions reached by them.
  6. Participants will approach disagreements as problems to be solved rather than battles to be won.
  7. Any participant is free to leave the clean room, but only after telling the entire group why and seeing if the potential problem(s) can be addressed by the group.


  1. Assess your role and responsibility in communicating with others.
  2. Identify and control your emotions and defensive behavior.
  3. Develop a goal and a plan for negotiating conflict, and rehearse your plan.
  4. Use dialogue as a tool to identify the other person's intent, interests, and needs, and defenses.
  5. Identify criteria that are most important to the situation.
  6. Develop and examine proposals that integrate interests and needs from both parties.
  7. Construct an agreement based on the criteria that have been determined.
  8. Don't shy away from conflict; rather, use it to focus the conversation.
  9. Work constructively with your negotiating party to answer the following questions:
    1. What is the "issue" in this situation?
    2. What are my interests and needs; what are my colleague's interests and needs?
    3. What ideas or proposals might best satisfy our interests and needs?
    4. What criteria or conditions must any proposal meet to be acceptable?
    5. What will be the consequences of not reaching an agreement? What is the best or worst that could happen?
    6. Based on our criteria, what proposal can we agree and act upon in good faith?


The interest-based negotiation process described in this article represents an alternative to position-based negotiation, which often leads to adversarial and win/lose negotiations. By engaging in reflective learning, sensemaking, and translation (sensegiving) within an open and safe learning environment, and with clear principles and ground rules, the parties to a negotiation can examine and adjust their mental models, assumptions, and positions; develop genuine dialogue and cooperation in developing creative proposals based on clear decision criteria; and facilitate agreement. By focusing on language and experience, mutual learning and understanding, and the relationship of the negotiators, including mutuality in translation of each other's needs and interests, within a safe, learning environment and with clear principles and ground rules, the parties to a negotiation can develop genuine dialogue and cooperation in integrating interests and aspirations and shaping the future.


Fisher, R., Schneider, A. K., Borgwardt, E., and Ganson, B. 1997. Coping with international conflict: a systematic approach to influence in international negotiations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Fisher, R. and Shapiro, D. 2005. Beyond reason: using emotions as you negotiate. New York: Penguin.

Kahane, A. 2004. Solving tough problems: an open way of talking, listening, and creating new realities. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Van Boven, L. and Thompson, L. 2003. A look into the mind of the negotiator: mental models in negotiation. Group Process and Intergroup Relations, Vol. 6(4) 387-404.

Chester C. Warzynski is executive director, organizational development, at the Georgia Institute for Technology and teaches leadership in the School of Public Policy. S. Clinton Sidle is the director of the Park Leadership Fellows Program at Cornell University; he has written two books on leadership and he teaches and consults in the area of leadership development.

This article originally appeared in the newsletter Academic Leader 27.1 (2011): 5. The Academic Leader newsletter is read by academic decision makers and thought leaders on campuses nationwide and offers innovative strategies and fresh ideas to advance teaching, scholarship, and service.