1. Ridge, Richard A. PhD, MBA, RN, CENP, NEA-BC

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The 1965 book A Behavioral Theory of Labor Negotiations by Walton and McKersie provided the conceptual framework for the modern era of negotiations in business, public policy, and interpersonal relationships.1 In 1981, Fisher and Ury applied this theory-heavy and academic conceptual work to everyday life and ordinary situations in Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.2 Since then, much has been written about what's now popularly referred to as interest-based negotiation, integrative bargaining, principled negotiation, or win-win bargaining. The nurse leader with a robust understanding of interest-based negotiation is better prepared for success at the collective bargaining table, in the executive office, in the boardroom, and in his or her personal life.

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The traditional approach

You're probably very familiar with launching or getting wrapped up in an argument focused on what each individual demands. At the labor management bargaining table, the union may be demanding a 5% raise for the life of the contract and the CNO has been charged with keeping the raise below 2%. Each side may initially adhere to its initial position, but eventually may meet somewhere in the middle. If the compromise is 3.5%, each side may feel like it half-won; however, each side still ends up explaining to its disappointed constituents that it failed to achieve the initial goal. Any amount higher or lower than the midpoint between the original positions may be construed as a victory for the side that lost less in the agreement. Scenarios such as this produce winners on one side and losers on the other. Each side often loses with respect to its original position. These losses are often compounded when constituents feel betrayed by previous promises.


In this case, the CNO may be perceived by the CEO and the executive team to have been unsuccessful in the negotiations because the target of 2% wasn't achieved. On the union side, constituents may have been promised-or perceive to have been promised-the 5%, leading to disappointed nurses who then may carry this disappointment over the life of the contract. They may feel disappointment in both the union and in management. The result is often an inefficient process that promotes stubbornness and a longstanding subsequent adverse impact on the relationship between the two parties. The traditional approach often results in lose-lose situation for all parties involved.


A better way

In contrast, interest-based negotiation doesn't start with a specific position on a specific issue, such as the percentage of salary increase. Instead, the process begins with a discussion of the situation and its context, an understanding of each other's interests and perceptions, and knowledge of the existing options available.


In the case of the previous simplified labor example, if each side better understood the other's interests, then other possible solutions may have been identified that met the goals through different means. A contract negotiated in an interest-based manner will likely include a discussion of the overall economic impact on both sides and give-and-take on a variety of issues, such as benefits, overtime, rules of work, and even incentives for each side meeting certain targets. Thus, less emphasis is placed on the exact percentage of the raise and each side benefits in a way that doesn't overtly cause the other party to lose. This isn't the same as compromise in which one side deliberately gives up something to gain something else.


For a personal example, consider a couple trying to decide where to go on their anniversary vacation: the wife insists on Hawaii and the husband argues for Alaska. In the traditional approach, one may concede to the other in a type of compromise, agreeing to go somewhere else the following year. However, disappointment will likely ensue. Following the principles of interest-based negotiation, the couple may start the discussion with what they hope to accomplish or achieve on the vacation. So rather than arguing simply about Hawaii versus Alaska, they may end up realizing that one really wanted a cruise vacation, with the specific destination of Alaska being secondary, and the other really wanted to see Hawaii. As a result, they may end up on a Hawaii cruise and both parties are satisfied.


Fisher and Ury describe and discuss the four core principles of interest-based negotiation in Getting to Yes. These four principles can be applied to almost any type of negotiation in which two or more parties are searching for a solution to a shared problem. The principles are: 1) separate the people from the problem; 2) focus on interests, not positions; 3) base the negotiation and decision process on objective criteria; and 4) generate several alternative options before reaching a final agreement.


Separate people from issues

The principle of separating the person from the issue not only serves to make negotiations less personal, but also address the issues without damaging the relationship. Taking a personal step back allows the participants to better understand the substantive problems and issues underlying the negotiation. Perception, emotions, and communication are the main cause of personal issues that affect negotiations. Consider the situation from the other person's perspective. The more each side understands about the other's perspective, the more likely they are to reach a satisfying agreement. Recognizing that most negotiations are fraught with the potential for frustration, anger, blame, intense disappointment, and hostility, it's also important to acknowledge the legitimacy and reasonableness of such feelings and not react sensitively to emotional eruptions.


Communication is often another source of people issues during negotiations. Active listening increases the likelihood of a satisfactory result for all parties. Being tuned in to nonverbal behavior-your own and others-is an important beginning. Being in the present and focused on the conversation sends the message that you're serious about the discussion and respect the other's contributions.3 Turning off or ignoring cellphones demonstrates that you're ready to focus and listen. Encourage the other party to express his or her opinions and beliefs in an effort to increase understanding.


Don't focus on positions

The second principle determines the substance of what issues are identified as the focus of the negotiations. We decide positions, but our interests provide the underlying motivation for these positions. By taking responsibility for describing our own interests and understanding others' interests, we shift the focus from an emphasis on a particular position as described in the earlier examples. Following the collective bargaining example, the union may be more committed to keeping down healthcare benefit contributions in relation to the salary targets. Remaining open to other proposals is important for all parties. Thus, losers and winners aren't necessarily created during the process.


Use objective criteria as a basis

Third, collaboratively establishing objective criteria before discussing options forms a shared framework for evaluation of proposals. Having the criteria in place before the evaluation of alternatives defuses the tendency to drift back to a position-based stance. For example, during nursing labor negotiations focused on staffing, each side may agree to adhere to a specific benchmark range from a specific set of hospitals. Or when negotiating health plan coverage, specific third-party standards may be used to define plan coverage. This approach helps prevent entrenched and prolonged disagreements over specific potentially divisive decision points.


Generate options

Finally, brainstorming alternatives as a first step helps establish the interest-based process and separate from starting with a specific position. Brainstorming alternatives validates others' contributions and shows a willingness to collaborate on a shared solution. Each side identifies options of high value and low cost in terms of resources, political capital, and long-term strategy. Collaboratively evaluating options leads to a deeper understanding by all parties and identifies more possibilities for reaching mutually agreeable solutions. Collaborative brainstorming and subsequent collaborative evaluation of each alternative leads to a shared interest and stake in each option by each side. Thus, stalemates driven by entrenched narrowly defined positions are avoided as the sides agree to an alternative they both created.


For the win

Interest-based negotiation is well established as the optimal method for reaching win-win agreements during business, political, and personal negotiations. The traditional position-focused, win-lose approach is arguably appropriate in situations where neither side foresees a future relationship or when the interests of the two parties aren't interdependent. However, in this increasingly global and interconnected world, predicting that future interests will never intersect seems shortsighted. In cases that don't successfully conclude with interest-based negotiation, mediation may provide the next best option. And, in the spirit of interest-based negotiation, a mutually agreed-on mediator up front in the process increases the likelihood of a satisfying result.




1. Walton R, McKersie R. A Behavioral Theory of Labor Negotiations. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 1965. [Context Link]


2. Fisher R, Ury W. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. New York, NY: Penguin Books; 1981. [Context Link]


3. Bernstein E. How 'active listening' makes both participants in a conversation feel better. [Context Link]