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Updated: Dec 11, 2023

The Harvard people have famously taught us to differentiate between positions and interests, understanding that what people say they want at the table is not at all the same as what is really driving them underneath. In my own approach to negotiation pedagogy, I like to use an “iceberg” model, with positions above the water, and interests beneath. Under the interests I also include perceptions, subjective views of the world that shape interests. I then go on to say that there is no truth, and that you do not get credit for being right in a negotiation. Instead, we should always strive to understand the interests of the other side while never forgetting about our own, in order to get to a solution that satisfies both. Classic win-win stuff.

But what about values? Where do our firmly-held beliefs about what is right and wrong and how lives should be lived fit in here? Are they just one more (subjective) facet of the perceptions in the iceberg, or does the truth come into the picture here a little more? In some very interesting work I have done with nonprofits over the last few years, especially those who believe passionately in a cause yet must negotiate with more powerful partners to advance it, we often run up against the tension between negotiation and advocacy. Managing that tension is not easy and tradeoffs can be agonizing.

On March 17, the European Union reached what could be a landmark agreement with Turkey on the continuing management of the refugee crisis. It was, in my view, quite a diplomatic achievement, and provided multiple wins: first showing a way forward to relieve the truly dire humanitarian situation on the ground especially in Greece, then addressing the particular interests of the Turks regarding accession and visas and finally releasing political pressure on the beleaguered governments of Europe, not least Germany. All the classic instruments of integrative bargaining were used to get to this solution, and the initial echo has been cautiously positive.

And yet, an uneasy feeling remains. Does this agreement also properly reflect European values? Critics point out that the immediate solution starts with sending many refugee arrivals back to Turkey against their will, a procedure which would seem to be inadmissible under UN Conventions. And surely we have a bad taste from cutting deals with a Turkish government which only days before trampled on the right of free expression, jailing critical journalists without due cause. Was this indeed principled negotiation or did pragmatism win out in the end?

What do we do when our interests conflict with our values? How do we apply the creative skills of empathetic negotiation but still remain authentic and true to what we believe in? What if the one puts the other at risk? Am I, for instance, harming my own interest in professional success by blogging frankly here about issues that may cost me the business of several Turkish clients who are an important part of the Rational Games portfolio?

Thorny questions indeed. Some insights can certainly be gained from Lax and Sebenius’ insightful writings on interest and values thirty years ago. Perhaps values are a frame, giving interests more tangible guidance, like a wooden ladder for a rising bush. And I have learned that shared values can also help even more than shared interests to make an agreement possible, even in situations of intractable conflict. So hope remains.

Deeper thinking beckons. Comments welcome!


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