About Mutual Gain

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In their classic book Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury argue that most negotiations are not as efficient or as successful as they might be because people tend to argue about positions rather than interests. Once the parties in a negotiation commit themselves to a position, they feel that changing their position represents failure. Instead, Fisher and Ury suggest that the parties in a negotiation focus on their interests. What can we get out of the negotiation that will further our interests? That is the question that should guide a negotiation toward achieving mutual gain.

Three Ways to See Your Options 

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Positional Bargaining: SoftParticipants want to be friendsThe goal is agreementParticipants trust each otherParticipants are soft on the people and the problemParticipants change positions readilyParticipants state their bottom lineParticipants make concessionsParticipants search for one solution
Positional Bargaining: HardParticipants are adversariesThe goal is victoryParticipants distrust each otherParticipants are hard on the people and the problemParticipants stick to a positionParticipants conceal their bottom lineParticipants demand concessionsParticipants demand one solution
Interest BargainingParticipants are problem solversThe goal is an outcome that will satisfy the interests of the participantsParticipants treat trust and distrust as irrelevantParticipants are soft on the people, hard on the problemParticipants focus on interests, not positionsParticipants don’t have a bottom lineParticipants invent options for mutual gainParticipants develop multiple options

About Mutual Gain 

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The key to making the mutual gain approach work is to focus on interests, not positions. Both parties want to create an atmosphere of respect and order in the schools. What options are available to allow them to satisfy their interests? 

The answer in this situation may be a compromise. One party wants uniforms, the other does not. The reasons why the first party wants to have uniforms is to avoid a situation where every student wears their own clothes and – potentially – bullying can arise where one person or group act with hostility towards another who have their own individual style. Although individuality is to be encouraged, it has its drawbacks when it leads to marked difference. 

One potential answer is to not have a specific uniform requirement – where everyone wears the same clothes – as this has its own drawbacks, making students easily identifiable to outsiders and potentially causing problems for parents with limited financial means. Instead, a dress code can be implemented which requires students to dress in a certain way without necessarily dressing all the same. The dress code can stipulate that the students dress in a modest, reasonable way without necessarily being clones of one another. This allows both parties to get something of what they want, without either side having to give up too much.

Creating a Mutual Gain Solution

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Creating a mutual gain solution requires some activities not usually associated with negotiations, for example:

  • Brainstorming to “expand the pie” by coming up with a range of options
  • Identifying shared values to help create options that will meet the interests of both parties
  • Changing the scope of the negotiation — making it larger or smaller
  • Identifying issues that can be set aside for future negotiations

One of the problems that arise in negotiations is that parties can feel that they are being marginalized in terms of what they can do and what they can get. They may feel that being in constant opposition means that the negotiations advance at a snail’s pace if at all. In order to put in place a mindset where there is a chance for consensus, the parties can look at what unites them rather than what puts them in opposition to one another. 

The difficulty in any negotiation arises when there are issues where both parties have a philosophical WAP which is too far from that of the other. There is in this case no ZOPA, and no matter how much negotiation takes place there will be a sticking point. If you can remove the sticking point from the equation at least temporarily, you can get in place a situation where there is space for consensus.

The danger of “ignoring the elephant in the room” is that it will not go away just because it is ignored. It will still be there, and although it is tempting to look at things from a “blue sky” point of view and forget about the clouds forming overhead, you can end up saving up problems for the latter stages of negotiations. What you could look at doing is having someone working away from the negotiating table to find a compromise solution, and bring it back to the table when it looks more palatable to both parties.

What Do I Want?

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To begin, identify what you personally want out of the negotiation. Try to state this positively. 


  • I want a fair share of all new customers.
  • I want a better working relationship with my manager.
  • I want changes to the schedule.

You can create two versions of your personal needs statement: your ideal resolution and your realistic resolution. Or, you could frame your statement into several steps if the negotiation is complicated.

Another useful exercise is to break down your statement into wants and needs. This is particularly valuable if your statement is vague. Let’s take the statement, “I want changes to the schedule,” as an example.

More input into the scheduling processTo work less than 30 hours per week
A more regular scheduleMore notice for schedule changes

This will give you some bargaining room during the negotiation process, and will help ensure that you get what you need out of the solution. In the example above, you may be willing to give up a more regular schedule if more notice for schedule changes is provided.

What Do They Want?

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Next, identify what the person that you are in conflict with wants. Try to frame this positively. Explore all the angles to maximize your possibilities for mutual gain.

These framing questions will help you start the process.

  • What does my opponent need?
  • What does my opponent want?
  • What is most important to them?
  • What is least important to them?

What Do We Want?

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Now that you have identified the wants and needs of both sides, look for areas of overlap. These will be the starting points for establishing mutual ground.

Here is an example. Joe and George are in conflict over the current schedule. As the most senior members of the assembly line team, they both alternate their regular duties with that of foreman. Although taking on the responsibility gives the foreman an extra $250 per shift, the foreman also has to work an extra hour per shift, and has additional safety responsibilities.

Joe and George both work Monday to Friday. As a regular assembly line team member, their shifts are from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. As foreman, they are expected to work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

WantsTo have at least two foreman shifts per week.To have at least two foreman shifts per week.To leave by 4:30 p.m. on Fridays.
NeedsTo leave by 4:30 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays to pick up his children.To ensure that the foreman position is covered by someone from Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.Not to have more than three foreman shifts per week as it will require him to pay extra taxes.To ensure that the foreman position is covered by someone from Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

From this simple chart, we can see that Joe and George have the same goal: to ensure that the foreman position is covered by someone during regular working hours. Thus, this is a logistical conflict rather than an emotional one. We can also see from the chart that there seems to be some good starting ground for a solution. 

When working through the wants and needs of both parties, be careful not to jump to conclusions. Rather, be on the lookout for the root cause. Often, the problem is not what it seems.

Case Study

Clay, the president of the education board for his area, wanted to introduce standardized uniforms to all the schools to eliminate cases of students wearing inappropriate clothing. He felt that having everyone dress the same would stop students from going out of line with their style of dress. Cheryl, another member of the education board, said that there are negative consequences to having a single uniform. She suggested that it would make students easily identifiable, and may cause problems for families with limited income. Cheryl suggested that a modest dress code would keep students from wearing inappropriate clothing, while also maintaining their individuality. Clay agreed that this was a fair compromise, and soon instituted the dress code rule.