The Worst Way to Get What You Want: Common Interests

Very often when people are engaged in negotiation – at work, within the family, or when they’re shopping for “stuff” – someone tries to come up with a solution based on fulfilling common interests.

Well, let me tell you a little secret….looking for common interests is a dream!

Anyone who has been on a family vacation that includes members of three generations understands that the kids and grandparents may want to share good times together – but the definition of ‘good times’ is quite different between the generations. Just imaging a teenager’s response if Grandpa or Grandma shows up wearing shorts that reveal what is commonly referred to as ‘plumber’s cleavage’.

common interests

Older family members may be raring to go by eight in the morning; that could be less likely for folks from other generations. And yet the much-to-be desired ‘common interest’ is to find ways to deepen and savor the joys of being part of the same family or group.

It is crucially important to redefine the understanding of

  • What we’re all hoping to achieve
  • Why it is important to each person, and
  • How to find a way that by serving each individual’s interest helps reach the overall goal
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Successful negotiation is a process that leads to an agreement each person will willingly fulfill.

While finding truly ‘common’ interests may be an unrealistic goal, finding interests that are complementary to those of others is a real possibility.

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How to Achieve Complementary Interests

One simple way of handling this is to give each person involved a chance to contribute to the agreement – and even to give a time slot when that person’s suggestion determines group activities.

The problem with that is that if someone’s choice is really boring, unsettling, or just plain unappealing to others, it can leave a bad taste and undercut the likelihood of bringing folks together.

A more promising approach is for each person to ask him/herself questions about what their interests are, and which of those interests takes higher priority.

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Understanding what really drives our own decision gives us a greater chance of being able to judge how another person’s idea fits with what’s important to us.

One effective way to clarify our personal priorities is by using the ‘five why’ technique:

  • Basically, we start with what we want (pizza for lunch, no smoking in the car, visits to museums) and then ask ourselves, “If I get what I want, what interest of mine will that satisfy?”
  • The next step is to ask, if, for example, a pizza lunch means a fast meal, then we have to ask, “How will having a fast meal contribute to my objectives?”
  • Let’s say that a fast meal means more time for other activities, again we have to examine, “Why is that a good thing?”
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If one asks those sorts of questions five times – and that is not a hard and fast rule – we are likely to reach a point of having a far clearer sense of the interest a particular outcome will serve.

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The Key to Understanding Others

Taking a similar approach to understanding why other folks want what they want means that the process brings us closer to understanding each other – and being able to recognize complementary interests that a given agreement can serve.  If each party has a reason for buying into the decision, even though the interests may not be common (the very same for each person), there is still a far greater likelihood that it will work.

Using this kind of approach goes well beyond the ‘problem at hand’; it gives the individuals experience working collaboratively with each other – and that, alone, can bring the group together.

Collaborative decision-making can help you cross generational lines – and many other differences that exist among people. It can strengthen family ties as well as those of other groups each of us is part of as consumers, workers, and neighbors.

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Too much focus on the ideal may keep us from achieving the possible.  As the old saying has it, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”


stephen cohenSteven P. Cohen is the President of The Negotiation Skills Company, Inc. He has worked as a negotiation consultant to hundreds of companies and government agencies in more than twenty countries in business sectors ranging from banking to healthcare, logistics to heavy manufacturing, and public relations to energy production. He is the author of The Practical Negotiator (Career Press, 2013).

Featured image by kevin dooley

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