, , , , , , ,


Negotiate from Needs, not Positions


So long as I can recall, I’ve seen negotiation as an arena for creativity, but most people don’t like to play that way so I was very happy to learn about the Harvard Negotiation Project. When I was Executive Director of the NYNEX AI lab, Beth Adelson developed a short course in negotiation based on the Harvard Negotiation Project. (That project later evolved into the Project on Negotiation).

I have been struggling with a recurrent issue in writing these Patterns. The issue nearly every time is separating the “Problem” from the “Context.” In the format that I’ve been trying to use consistently, the “Problem” comes first and then the context. But in attempting to tell a compelling story, I typically find myself needing to say at least something about the context early on in order for the reader (or at least my mental representation of the reader) to make sense of why the problem arises. I had thought that Christopher Alexander might finesse the issue because people are typically already familiar with towns, cities, buildings etc. and because he uses an evocative image to remind people of the context. It generally seems much more difficult to point unambiguously to a social situation with a picture. I returned to A Pattern Language in order to find out how CA and his team handled this issue. Well, it turns out, A Pattern Language does not make anything like these separate categories! Patterns typically begin with a lead-in which contextualizes the problem. I think the format I was trying to use might work for the Object-Oriented Programming Language community because, in a sense, programming solutions are typically themselves decontextualized. Having separate and well-defined sections also helps someone using a Pattern Language navigate to a specific point. However, it may damage the logical and compelling presentation of the idea to begin with. This provides something of a puzzle, but for now, I am going to try to follow the spirit of CA’s original Pattern Languages for a time and thought I will attempt to keep separate sections, I will put Context before Problem.

The following Pattern is especially relevant today because as of this writing, there seem to be an increasing number of “leaders” in the world who are presuming that negotiating by positions is the only way to go and every negotiation leads to winners and losers. 


Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas March 15-24, 2018


Especially in highly competitive societies, it is common to view negotiation in terms of a zero sum game. In this view, a “good negotiator” is someone who gets more of what they want at the expense of the other person. Instead of assuming that everyone else is just like us in every way and therefore wants the same exact things as we do, one might explore a more open problem solving space by finding out what the other person actually wants and discovering what you really want. Put another way, each negotiator might put on the table what their actual needs are rather than simply their position about one or a few things. Often both (or all) sides can work together to creatively construct a solution that satisfies the needs of all parties. If parties to a negotiation view each issue as unidimensional, monotonic, and independent, it tends to induce a competitive frame of mind. If parties to a negotiation instead view issues together in multiple dimensions, it is often possible to induce a problem solving frame of mind and all parties end up better off in terms of meeting their real needs. In addition, negotiating in this way tends to increase mutual trust and cooperation over time.



Complex problems can often only be solved by groups. Typically, really large scale groups are not homogeneous but have subgroups within them. This works at many levels of scale. For example, the world as a whole needs to solve the problems of climate change and pollution. Yet, it seems it would be efficient to implement some solutions on a country by country basis. But the countries will then tend to argue about how much is “their share” of the solution. Or, a nation needs to improve its solar energy research program. But some states will fight over where research money is invested. Others will argue all that money should go to oil and coal. There may be negotiation between son and father about how long to walk the dog. In every case of negotiation, there is both some sort of common goal and some difference of opinion about how to get there. In the case of Labor and Management, for instance, both want to avoid a strike. In the case of the countries, all the countries presumably want to have a livable planet for their descendants.


There is another habit of work common at least in my cultural context (American business) that plays into typical negotiations. When people of many industries organize meetings, a key part of that organization is the agenda – the linear list of topics to be addressed. When applied to negotiations, this is translated into a list of individual issues that need to be addressed. The implication is that they are to be addressed one by one. An important underlying assumption is if the best solution is found on every issue, then we will also find the best solution overall. This is not necessarily so, but it is a common default way of addressing issues: one by one.

iPhoneDownloadJan152013 533

My own cultural experience of contemporary America is that it is insanely competitive. Competition has its place. Personally, I love competition in sports and games. My first book is titled, The Winning Weekend Warrior. It deals with strategy, tactics, and the mental game as applied to all sports. It also points out that this competition only “works” because people agree on a framework of competition and stick to that framework. Sportsmanship is fundamental to good competition. But I call out my current society as insanely competitive because we now apply it to nearly every human activity. You can turn on TV and not only find competitions in basketball, soccer, and tennis (which make sense) but also for activities which have historically been cooperative, enjoyable fun such as singing, dancing, cooking, and even dating! It has come to apply particularly to politics. There is almost no cooperative attempt to identify and solve important national issues. It is all a question of ratings, polls, press coverage, donation dollars and votes. This competitive mindset is then reinforced when people negotiate according to positions. Not only are such negotiations unlikely to yield any creative solutions, they encourage viewing the “other” in the negotiations as “the enemy” or even something sub-human. While competitive athletics at least works within an agreement about rules and procedures, in politics, there seems no longer to be any agreement about what is appropriate.



Especially in competitive societies, it’s easy to fall into the trap of viewing every negotiation as a contest with winners and losers. Labor, e.g.,  says they must have at least 20$/hour to prevent a strike and management says they can’t possibly afford more than 10$/hour to avoid bankruptcy. Of course, these are not necessarily true statements. Privately, labor may know that their membership would settle for 15$/hour. Privately, management might know that they could pay 30$/hour and not go bankrupt – but that would require cutting executive bonuses and dividends. So, here, in a nutshell is the situation. Two parties are both being dishonest and yet, they are relying on the other to solve a problem that requires trust.

Not only are the parties unlikely to end up even close to the “best” solution. Hard feelings and mistrust are likely to spill over into the work itself or any implementation of the solution. If either side feels “betrayed” they will be even more “hard-nosed” in the next negotiation. In some cases, the parties will no longer work together for their common good. Instead, there will be at various levels such effects as war between nations, secession and civil war, riots among citizens who feel unfairly disadvantages, or divorce between two people who fight to win – about what should be honest, mutual problem solving.


  • Groups of groups must sometimes work together to achieve common goals.
  • Subgroups may disagree with each other about the best use of resources to achieve those common goals.
  • Honesty on every side and mutual trust is most effective and efficient in solving problems and implementing solutions.
  • When negotiating on the basis of positions, negotiation becomes viewed as a zero sum game.
  • In a zero sum game, it can work to your advantage to be dishonest.

* Negotiations that always treat every issue independently cannot always converge on the best solutions.

  • Zero sum games induce a highly competitive mindset.
  • Negotiating from real needs tends to induce a cooperative mindset.
  • Negotiating from real needs tends to increase trust.

* Higher levels of mutual trust lead to better outcomes and more pleasant experiences for all stakeholders.


When it is necessary to negotiation among two or more sub-groups within a larger group, negotiate from actual needs not positions. Work together to discover the best solutions for the larger groups while minimizing undue pain for any one subgroup.



1. A quintessential example used in the Harvard Negotiation Project is the story of the two sisters. They spied a lemon in the kitchen and both went for it at the same time. Each said they wanted the lemon. Eventually, the grudgingly cut the lemon in two. In this way, it would seem that they had reached a “fair” solution in that each one had met the other half-way. It turned out, however, that one of the sisters actually wanted the lemon peel for a cake recipe while her sister wanted to drink the juice of the lemon. It turned out they could have each had 100% of what they wanted. Perhaps they could have even planted a lemon tree from the seeds as well.


2. Two countries are each trying to achieve more economic prosperity for its citizens. Some countries have relative advantages in the production of some goods and services over others; e.g., because of differences in natural resources, availability of necessary labor and expertise, cultural resonance with the required activity, or existing infrastructure. It makes much more sense for some countries to specialize in some rather than all goods and services. Over time, these differential advantages change. At one time, for instance, India and China, among others, had a huge advantage in terms of cheap labor but relatively less advantage in science and engineering expertise compared with, say, the United States. Labor costs in India and China are now higher (though still much less than in the US) while expertise in science and technology has skyrocketed. In any case, the US government has now decided to embark on a “trade war” with one of our most productive trading partners. In this case, the results will probably be bad for everyone except for a few very wealthy American executives who might make more money in the short term.

Instead, negotiators from China and the United States could get together and identify a number of issues that could be better solved by having the United States and China work together. As one example, as China becomes more proficient in science and engineering, they may find it increasingly in their interest to promote a more universal and more enforceable way to deal with intellectual property. As automation, robotics, and AI become more capable of replacing more jobs in both countries, they could work together on how to avoid massive unemployment. They could work together to define specific areas of scientific and engineering cooperation; e.g., how to provide clean water, how to slow and reverse climate change, how to ameliorate its effects, how to develop and share best practices in managing emergencies such as earthquakes or large fires. It’s infantile to imagine that there are a finite number of jobs available which must be apportioned between the US and China so that every job is either “given” to one party of the other.


3. Joe and Suzi are New Yorkers who are already sick of the hot, hazy, humid weather in early July and they decide it’s time for planning a vacation for late August. Joe wants to take a vacation to Orlando while his wife Suzi wants to go to Aspen. These are their initial positions. If each “insists” on getting their way, there are several options that seem “fair.” They could flip a coin. They could agree to alternate vacations between the two places and flip a coin to decide which one “wins” first. They could find a place half-way between. In this case, that might be Little Rock, Arkansas. They could arm wrestle over it. Of course, they might want their own vacation site so much that they agree to take separate vacations.  There are options available but they are limited. Joe has no idea why Suzi wants to go to Aspen and he may not even be fully aware of why he wants to go to Orlando. He just remembers having a good time there as a Columbia college student on winter break. Suzi, for her part, has no idea why Joe wants to go to Orlando and may not even be fully aware of why she wants to go to Aspen. She remembers going to a design conference there about 15 years ago and she had a really good time and loving seeing the mountains in the background.

If Joe and Suzi are willing to trust each other and jointly figure out what they both want from a vacation, the space of possibilities for meeting their needs expands tremendously. As it turns out, Joe loves to bake in the sun. He likes to swim in the ocean. He likes to look for pretty rocks and shells. He likes to run along the beach. He likes to watch women in bikinis walk by. In college, he got uproariously drunk, but he has no such desire now. Suzi, for her part, enjoyed the design conference, more than Aspen. It was fun to meet new people doing interesting design projects.  She did enjoy a bit of some cross-country skiing and the way it got her heart racing. She also recalls that the town itself had pretty flowers and buildings.


Once both parties become aware of their needs and wants rather than their positions, several things become clear to them as a team. First of all, when Joe went to Orlando as college student in the winter, he was getting away from the cold and lying on the beach in the sun seemed great. Now, it’s late August and hot. Orlando will only be hotter. Suzi will not be doing any cross-country skiing in Aspen in late August. More importantly, the Aspen Design conference is in the Spring. With more mutual planning and problem solving, they discover that San Diego has a design conference during their vacation time frame. They can drive into the mountains in an hour and there are plenty of beaches for Joe. Running along the beach, renting bikes, playing beach volleyball, or playing tennis could be pleasurable exercise. San Diego has plenty of flowers and nice looking houses. The climate is much more temperate than that of New York City. San Diego provides a much better “solution” to their needs than does Little Rock (which would be even more hot and humid than New York City in August and actually provide almost none of the desires for either Joe or Suzi). In their research about San Diego, they may discover things that they both want to do that they had not even thought about when their thinking was limited to trying to recreate something from their past. For instance, they may both want to visit the San Diego Zoo.

It might seem contrived to the reader that two adults might stick stubbornly to a preconceived “position” rather than attempt a mutual problem solving activity. In my experience, it isn’t the least bit contrived. As I mentioned earlier, this is precisely the kind of stance the American government seems determined to take toward negotiations.

4. To return to the Labor and Management example, this may seem to be one case where “positional” negotiation makes sense. After all, every penny management pays to workers means less pay for executives and stockholders. Even here, it is extremely likely that this is not really the case. A large company, for instance, will have much more leverage in providing affordable health care than will the individual workers. So, a dollar less in salary might mean $.50 goes to management and stockholders but another $.50 goes to health care that will actually save the employees $1.50 in healthcare costs.  While the employees say they want higher wages, what they really want might be worried about is paying their mortgage and sending their kids to college. Money is one way to help make that happen. But there could be other ways to help that might be much cheaper for the company. A large company, for instance, could put its considerable political pull behind cheaper government college loans, debt forgiveness or universal, government-sponsored 2 year degrees for everyone. Perhaps under certain conditions, they would co-sponsor housing loans. Another part of why workers might want more money is that, in our society, a person’s “worth” is erroneously equated with their financial worth. Workers might be willing to trade some dollars of salary for earned respect. In far too many companies, management may have very little or very limited perspective on how the work is actually done, instead relying on abstract and greatly over-simplified flow charts. Management issues orders to workers and workers are expected to follow those orders, however stupid they are in practice. Instead, workers and management together could identify and solve problems, agree on metrics of improvement, measure those improvements, engage in general profit-sharing and provide bonuses to workers who help identify and implement improvements.

Many studies also indicate that workers often produce more net in a 30 hour week than in a 60 hour week because the 60 hour week causes fatigue, burn-out, costly errors and accidents, work stoppages, and turnover. For some businesses and workers, four ten-hour days might improve the quality of life for workers at the same time that it reduced costs for the employers. The general point is this: No matter how “obvious” the unidimensional nature of a negotiation is, that obviousness is almost invariably an illusion.

Resulting Context:

Once people participate in joint problem solving to identify and agree upon ways to satisfy people’s needs rather than compromise on initial positions, they will be more likely to trust each other in future negotiations as well.  Furthermore, they will behave more cooperatively and civilly to each other between negotiations as well.

Related Patterns: 

Reality Check, Small Successes Early, Build from Common Ground.


In nature, competition certainly exists. But so does cooperation. Even when competition is “life and death” it is almost never treated as monotonic. A hungry fox will eat a rabbit. That’s nice for the fox but not so nice for the rabbit. Or, the rabbit gets away which is not so great for the fox. But the foxes do not “decide” that their hunger is due to rabbits and they are now going to set out to destroy every last one of them so they’ll never be hungry again. Clearly, if the foxes “succeeded” they would be full for a while — and then they would all starve to death. Foxes seem smart enough to intuit this. With humans, the jury is still out.





Thomas, J. C. (2017). Building Common Ground in a Wildly Webbed World: A Pattern Language Approach. PPDD Workshop, 5/25/2017, San Diego, CA.