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Moving from positions to interests

by Mr. Jacob Hirsch



Consider the story of two men quarreling in a shul. One wants the window open and the other wants it closed. They bicker back and forth about how much to leave it open: a crack, halfway, three quarters of the way. No solution satisfies them both.

Enter the Rabbi. He asks one why he wants the window open: “to get some fresh air.” He asks the other why he wants it closed: “to avoid the draft.” After thinking a minute, the Rabbi opens a wide window in the next room, bringing in fresh air without a draft.

This story is typical of many negotiations. Since the parties’ problem appears to be a conflict of positions, and since their goal is to agree on a position, they naturally tend to think and talk about positions-and in the process often reach an impasse.

The Rabbi could not have invented the solution he did if he had focused only on the two men’s stated positions of wanting the window open or closed. Such a position-oriented solution would have required the likes of King Solomon. Instead he looked to their underlying interests of fresh air and no draft. This difference between positions and interests is crucial in resolving conflict peacefully.

Your position is something you have decided upon. Your interest is something that caused you to so decide. Reconciling interests rather then positions works for two reasons. First, for every interest there usually exist several possible positions that could satisfy it. For example, when Israel and Egypt sat down together in 1978 to negotiate a peace their positions were incompatible. Israel insisted on keeping some of the Sinai. Egypt, on the other hand, insisted that every inch of the Sinai be returned to Egyptian sovereignty. Time and again people drew maps showing possible boundary lines that would divide the Sinai between Egypt and Israel. Compromising in this way was wholly unacceptable to Egypt. To go back to the situation as it was in 1967 was equally unacceptable to Israel.

Looking to their interests instead of their positions made it possible to develope a solution. Israel’s interest lay in security; they did not want Egyptian tanks poised on their border ready to roll across at any time. Egypt’s interest lay in sovereignty; the Sinai had been part of Egypt since the time of the Pharaohs. After centuries of domination by the Greeks, Romans, Turks, French, and British, Egypt had only recently regained full sovereignty and was not about to cede territory to another foreign conqueror.

Looking toward their interests Israel and Egypt eventually agreed to a plan that would return the Sinai to complete Egyptian sovereignty and, by demilitarizing the large areas, would still assure Israeli security. The Egyptian flag would fly everywhere, but its tanks would be nowhere near Israel.

Reconciling interests rather than compromising between positions also works because many times behind opposed positions lie many more interests than conflicting ones. For example, Phil and his wife Sherry had come to see me to work out some of their differences through mediation. He insisted that she was depressed/sick and needed psychiatric treatment and drugs to help her function and she insisted that his uncompromising belief in modern medicine was the problem because all he could do was suggest that she go to a physiotherapist that would prescribe drugs and medication. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this and many other disagreements that arose between them were a direct result of their being stuck in the position rather then interest mode.

Phil was not a very educated man having only graduated high school and his underlying interest was seeing that Sherry, who was clearly having mood swings and symptoms of depression, get the help she needed. Sherry on the other hand was very well read and educated and was disturbed by the notion that modern medicine might use her as a guinea pig. Her underlying interest was not to be manipulated by the medical establishment whom she saw as nothing more then drug companies making billions off the unassuming consumer. As a result one of the things that I suggested as a possible partial solution was that Sherry look into possible receiving advice and treatment from the world of alternative medicine. In this way Sherry might receive the necessary treatments but would not have to feel that she was being manipulated by what she perceived was the money hungry medical establishment.

So the next time you are at a simcha/family gathering having a heated debate about the social and economic issues of the frum world and how you might solve it all if only you had the time and money, start by identifying the underlying interests and not merely positions. Who knows you might come up with something unique?


Mr. Jacob Hirsch, J.D. is a Certified Mediator/Divorce Mediator, member of the Association of Conflict Resolution as well as a member of the Family and Divorce Mediation Council of Greater New York. He maintains a practice in Brooklyn, N.Y. For more information and a free consultation contact him at (718) 327-9278 or (917) 840-4806.