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By putting yourself in your negotiating partner’s shoes, you might find yourself shaking hands on a new deal.

Interest-Based Negotiation: A Partnership, Not a Battle

By Curt Stedron | May 26, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print

The word “negotiation” might bring several kinds of scenarios to mind. It could be a dramatic hostage situation, or an agonizing used car lot experience. Or it could be a sterile corporate boardroom with executives trading offers and counteroffers. But in the complex legislative world, negotiation not only looks different—two members in a hallway debating a key piece of legislation, or a staff director trying to mediate a dispute between two researchers—but also requires a different approach.

Positional bargaining is the term for the most common form of negotiation. Simply put, it’s a haggle: Both sides a plant flag in the turf on their side of the playing field, demanding a “position,” and everything flows from there, generally with each side making two-steps-forward-one-step-back progress toward midfield. If they can get close enough to what is known as the “zone of possible agreement”—an area of overlapping acceptable terms—an agreement usually can be reached. But only after what is very often a painful, frustrating and potentially relationship-crushing process. And while positional bargaining might work reasonably well in a flea market—it’s fast; both sides expect it; it doesn’t take much preparation—it is often ill-suited for a complex multi-issue, multi-stakeholder world like the legislature.

Partners, Not Opponents

Fortunately, there is another way to approach negotiation. Interest-based negotiation championed by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard University differs from positional bargaining in several key ways:

  • Rather than fight over the crumbs in a fixed pie, we consider ways to expand the pie first before carving it up.
  • We have negotiating partners, not opponents.
  • We focus on interests, not positions, working together to create options that deliver the maximum number of interests to all involved parties.

Thus, interest-based negotiation is as much a mindset change as it is a skill-set shift. It requires a fundamentally different concept of what a negotiation process is: no longer a battle, but a partnership. For that partnership to successfully achieve an agreement, several key principles need to be embedded in the process:


Interests are very different than positions. Positions are what I say I want. Interests are why I want it. If a staffer demands a $5,000 raise, that’s taking a position. But the motivation behind that position might be very different, perhaps a need for validation or recognition for recent work. Validation is the interest that underlies the $5,000 raise position. Oftentimes in the legislature, circumstances make it impossible to deliver a position to a negotiating partner. But probing deeply enough to uncover more and more interests can greatly improve the possibility for an agreement.

Because a position is different than an interest, satisfying a position is different than satisfying an interest. Interests provide new raw materials from which an agreement might be constructed. Delivering some authentic validation (a new title, increased job responsibility and a better parking space) with a $2,000 raise might just deliver your interest of keeping a top performer on your team happy.


Options are the creative part of interest-based negotiation. Options represent the fruit of a collaborative thought process whose goal is to deliver the maximum number of interests to each party involved in the negotiation. If you are house hunting and your spouse demands a third bedroom (a position), while your heart is set on a charming two-bedroom in the perfect location at the right price, you have two choices: You can positionally bargain to a 2.5-bedroom compromise that satisfies no one, or you can attempt to uncover some underlying interests and develop options that satisfy as many of them as possible. And when that process unearths a previously hidden interest such as a need for a workout space, perhaps the offer of a gym membership could seal the deal on that two-bedroom charmer.


What will I do if we can’t reach an agreement? This question needs to be answered before you begin any negotiating process. And yet most people never even consider it. What are my alternatives to a deal? Of those, which one is the best? In negotiation theory, this is known as a BATNA: best alternative to a negotiated agreement. BATNAs are important to consider, because they become the standard by which you evaluate the merits of an offer. Is it better or worse than your BATNA? If you have a stronger alternative than what is currently on the table, then why would you take the deal? But if the deal is better than your BATNA, it might be worth serious consideration. And don’t just consider your own BATNA. Try to put yourself in your negotiating partner’s shoes. Negotiators who can benchmark their proposals to be slightly better than their partner’s BATNA often find themselves shaking hands on new deals.

Now all of this might sound a bit quaint, even naive, in the rough-and-tumble corridors of the capitol. In an era of increased polarization and partisanship, is there even a place for a collaborative philosophy like interest-based negotiation? The best way to answer that question is to apply these principles:

  • What are your true INTERESTS as a member of the legislature? Does your current negotiation process deliver them?
  • What is your best ALTERNATIVE to this interest-based approach? Is the current style of negotiation in your legislature better or worse?
  • And what other OPTION has more potential to yield real solutions to the biggest challenges facing your state?

Curt Stedron is the director of the NCSL Legislative Training Institute.

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