Interests Not Positions: The Negotiation Blunder of the January 2019 Governmental Shutdown.

Interests Not Positions: The Negotiation Blunder of the January 2019 Governmental Shutdown.

By the time you find and read this post, the partial government shutdown of January 2019 may be over and forgotten.

There has already been a partial resolution leading to a 3-week resumption of services.  As I write this, there is still quite a bit of uncertainty and rhetoric being thrown about. It will be interesting to see how it all settles out.



Editor: In the post I review advanced topics in negotiation. Despite playing out on the national stage, these lessons are applicable to your daily practice. As physicians you are expected to negotiate quite often. Of the non-clinical professional skills, negotiation is the most important. We have a joke in negotiation-“if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu!” If negotiation is something you did not learn in a formal manner, you are a distinct disadvantage. may be the missing piece you need to really succeed.


Looking at this political event as a negotiation, I see three classic mistakes being made.

  • Emphasizing Positions over Interests
  • Selling false positions to your supporters
  • Allowing non-involved parties to set or affect the tone



The purpose of the post is to review common mistakes in negotiation.

This is not a political blog. I’m not going to choose “sides” or impart “blame”. If you unable to separate the political aspects of this events from the lessons to be learned, maybe you should bookmark this post and come back to it in a few weeks.

As much as you may be personally involved or committed to national politics or involved in the issues at debate, in the end this is all a simple negotiation. And, like all negotiations, you have two parties with various goals who are both trying to come to a solution that is better than their current BATNA.

Keeping this in mind, I’ll go over the classic negotiation mistakes being made and try to apply this to physician negotiation.


Put your political opinions on hold and just chill...


Emphasizing Positions over Interests.

Every party in a negotiation has several key values or elements

Of course, the more you research and plan your negotiation strategy, the better developed these values will be. Well-trained negotiators will also develop an anchor/counter offer, a concession strategy, and a leverage “sheet”.


Preparation pays off on negotiation


Interests vs Position. What’s the difference?

“Interests” are the things you want or desire.

This could be almost anything: A car with air conditioning, a start date earlier than usual, moving expenses, or an wRVU package that supports your bonus structure. Although it may sound obvious, many people in a negotiation can’t express or don’t fully understand their interests.


knowing what you want is the most important first step


Positions are the actual items or concessions that you request or demand.

These are usually stated in terms of money amounts, dates, or agreements. Common positions would include an extra $700 for the air conditioning package on your new car, a starting salary of $315,000, start date of May 15th, or a your bonus kicking in at 4300 wRVU’s.


Focus on your goals and not actual values. Especially early on.


It’s very easy to confuse Interests with Positions in a negotiation.

So common in fact, that most unskilled negotiators don’t know the difference. They then get stuck and frustrated fighting for positions rather than understanding the interests of the other party.

Here’s the thing, since both parties have different interests, you can usually find a common ground.

You give a little on their interests and they gave a little on yours. When the agreement is finalized, you both getting what is most important to you, while giving up a little in those things that don’t really matter.


Build a strong relationship during the negotiation process nearly guarantees future success.

This is commonly called a “win-win” negotiation.

Let’s say you want to make a starting salary of $315,000. Your future employers need you to start May 15th, because they have someone retiring. You don’t really care when you start. They don’t mind paying you more, as long as you can plug the huge hole in their schedule.

After understanding your future employer’s interests, you eventually negotiate a starting salary of $300,000 for 2 years with a 25k signing bonus and retention bonus. In return, you agree to start May1st and will get an extra 2 weeks of vacation the second year to make up for the extra hassle.

You may not have gotten everything you wanted, but both parties are better off. The is the classic interest-based negotiation.

How could the current political shutdown mistakes be prevented? Maybe there was no avoiding it, but a wise first move would have been an interest-based position.


Position based negotiation almost always leads to conflict.


Party A could have stated, “We desire a solution that assures the security of the Southern Border”

Party B could have stated, “We desire a solution to address current undocumented immigrants and allows for humane immigration and treatment in the future.”

This will allow for a workable solution with negotiation and both parties being able to claim victory.

If you walk into a room and state, “I am not working for less than $425,000 in salary” you’ve painted yourself into a corner. You are now in a fight over positions, rather than interests. You are starting from a difficult position.

Selling False Positions to your Supporters.


This is a common scenario that plays out when a small group of negotiators represents a large group.

Think of a Labor union representing the workers and negotiating with the company. The leaders of the Labor Union need to maintain support, so they make incorrect or misleading statements to their constituents. The say, “We’ll never pay a cent for health care!” or “No layoffs!”. They act in a belligerent way and then in the negotiations they are completely different.

Finally, when they come out of the negotiation they give fair and reasonable concessions, but their supporters are distraught by the broken promises.

Eventually, this leads to mistrust of the system and lack of support. A much better approach is to be honest, “We are in a difficult fight here and are doing everything we can to avoid raises in health care and layoffs”

Sure, it’s much easier to lie to your supporters. Especially if they are the type to blindly support you no matter what the outcome… Eventually, all unhappy parties will turn or lose interest. It’s best to avoid that as possible.


Trust, once lost, is almost never regained.


Allowing non-involved parties to set the tone or affect outcome.


Understanding the behind the scenes influences can be a valuable source of leverage


It’s always interesting to know the parties that are involved in a negotiation.There are often people involved behind the scenes that are playing a major role that you aren’t aware of.

For instance, the president of the hospital may be bringing a lot of heat on your future chairman to hire someone that plugs a coverage hole, that can staff a satellite location, or has a skill set that allows the institution to compete with the cross-town rivals.

One thing you want to avoid is allowing non-involved parties to play a role in your negotiation.



I often think back to elementary school fist fights. You have two kids who have no interest in the altercation and a bunch of people who have no “skin in the game” egging them on. Why would you let the same thing happen to as an adult? But, yet it happens all the time.

In politics, it’s the news media and commentators affecting the negotiations. They declare that if one side “caves” on a single issue then they have failed completely, etc. The journalists have no real skin in the game. Their interest is increasing viewership and revenue. Allowing them to alter how you approach the negotiation is a mistake.

Medicine is not immune to this either.

In fact, I see it quite often. There is often a handful of physicians who like to complain loudly to their colleagues, but don’t take their complaints to administration. It’s seductive to fall under their influence, after all they are telling you exactly what you want to hear.

These colleagues have very little skin in the game. Their goals may be to make the administration look bad, create some chaos to lower expectations, or to have you move on to their advantage. Learning to recognize these sources of influence can help you keep focused on your negotiation goals.


Ever notice that some docs seems to enjoy complaining...


As you go forward in your career, remember to avoid positions and emphasize interests, be honest with your stakeholders (even if is much easier to stretch the truth), and watch for influence from non-involved parties.

Keeping your negotiation clear of these negative influences will help you stay on track, build better relationships, and obtain better outcomes at the bargaining table.


Negotiation is not just for politicians. Doctors need these skills as well!


Do you know how to design a negotiation strategy that could lead to a win-win outcome? Have you learned how to obtain information for leverage? Do you feel comfortable developing an Anchor or BATNA? Learn this and more at NegotiationMd.

Check out the rest of our blog  Or maybe you are interested in more posts about the political shutdown?


So, what do you think? Have you ever seen these mistakes in your daily practice? how do you overcome a difficult negotiating partner? Is brinkmanship something you’ve come across? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section.

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