In any discussion or negotiation each party will have both interests and positions. For simplicity’s sake, think of interests as goals and positions as specific pathways to achieve those goals.
Most of us think of negotiations in terms of staking out a position and bargaining our way to the best possible outcome.
In one live recording of “The Magic Bus”, by The Who, two singers keep countering between “one hundred English pounds” and “95”. They never do make a deal even though their positions seem so close.
This form of bargaining is about dividing up a pie with a fixed size.
In other discussions, the parties explain their interests or their needs. They hope to understand everyone else’s needs and find a way forward that satisfies everyone’s interests in the most efficient way.
This form of bargaining is about increasing the size of the pie and then determining how it will be divided. It is truly beautiful when it works.
Let me illustrate by using a domestic example that is so close to home that my family may feel uncomfortable.
My wife and I have hard jobs with long hours and we eat out way too much. We have decided that each spouse will take a turn in deciding where we will eat.
On a particular Friday night, it’s my wife’s turn to choose. She wants Italian food and decides that Restaurant A will be perfect. In this case her interest is Italian food and her position is Restaurant A. Notice she has only put forth her position when she tells me she wants to go to Restaurant A.
I don’t like Italian food. I reject her position and lobby for another restaurant, Restaurant B. I put forward my position, but neglect to tell her my interest, which is a nice meal.
She holds firm. I get sulky; I tell her that she doesn’t love me after all. She holds firm. I threaten that when it is next my turn to choose, I will take her to a roadhouse with loud, live music for burgers. She has a hearing problems and the loud music will cause her problems. She holds firm. At this point we are both angry.
Finally our daughter suggests Restaurant C, which serves very good Italian food, but also serves a number of dishes that I will enjoy. We go to Restaurant C and everyone has a good time.
Notice that my wife’s position, that we go to Restaurant A is not satisfied. My position that we go to Restaurant B is not satisfied. But both of our interests are satisfied. My wife gets good Italian food and I get a nice meal, which I enjoy.
We would have been much better off and avoided a lot of conflict if we had started with an interest-based discussion.
I see many similarities in the current situation developing between the Federal Government and small business owners and self-employed professionals.
The government’s position is a published list of tax changes. Small business’ position is that no changes should be made. This is a situation that seems doomed to failure. There is no overlapping solution possible. The Government can force through their changes, if they are willing to pay the political price.
What would an interest based approach look like?
It should start with a fresh process. There should be broad and fulsome consultation with all Canadians.
Let’s assume that government wants a fairer tax system that requires ‘wealthy’ people to pay a fair share of taxes. Let’s assume that small business wants to be able to plan for the future, provide for parental leave, illness and retirement. Let’s assume that farmers and other small businesses want to be able to pass on their assets to the next generation. These and other things are each party’s interests. And of course Canadians who are not self employed professionals or small business owners have their own interests of a vibrant economy and access to good, reliable employment.
How can the government get out of their current dilemma? They could capitulate and say no changes are needed. That has happened before. More rationally they should be willing to work with the small business community to find another way forward.
It would make a lot of sense to pause and hold public and private discussions with everyone, including government, small business owners and other tax-payers, to come up with an interest based solution.
Sometimes we all have to put a little water in our wine.
Scott D Wooder, MD