The Basic Course

Lesson 3: Separating Positions from Needs

Separating Needs from Positions. This is perhaps one of the most important skills to learn when trying to bridge divides on virtually any issue. In a dispute, people tend to argue over their positions. In political disputes, people argue over their political positions on a given social issue. This is what happens, for example, in a debate. People argue about whose positions is correct. They seek to convince the other person that their position is the correct one. The other person becomes defensive, offers counter-arguments, and the process goes back and forth. Problems don't tend to get solved this way. To solve problems, try to see each person's position as a reflection of some unmet need -- as a solution to a problem that the person may not even know she has! To resolve a conflict, don't argue over positions. Don't debate. Instead, find the hidden needs that motivate people to take the positions they do. Then, work together to try and find ways to meet those needs.

Beyond the Zero Sum Game! The Window at the Library. A third example of non-political problem solving. Again, this has direct applications to political problem solving. This is a classic example that comes from Fisher, Ury and Patton's (2011) now classic book, Getting to Yes: How to Negotiate Agreement without Giving In. This video demonstrates the importance of "thinking outside the box" -- well, in this case, the window -- when we are trying to solve a conflict between people. We tend to think of conflict as a "zero-sum game" -- I can only get what I want if you don't get what you want. We tend to think of conflict as if it were a battle over a "fixed pie". There is only so much pie to go around. If we are in a fight over a pizza, the more pieces I get, the fewer you get. The amount of pie is fixed. But everything changes once we stop thinking of conflict as a fight over a "fixed pie" or as a "zero-sum game". This video explains why.