Today I’m going to talk about how to break through the barrier of competing opinions by separating issues from the underlying interests, a step that is basic to getting along well.

The first thing to do is clarify the issues. Issues are usually tangible, measurable, concrete, and overt. They are the substance of the debate. They are strategies to meet needs or fulfill values. Issues are also often divisive, because they usually require one side to win and the other to lose.

Interests, on the other hand, are intangible and based on universal human needs, though they are usually unstated and assumed. They are the essence of the conversation. Interests are why we do what we do, why we hold opinions so strongly. They are the needs underlying our behavior and the values we hold dear. Interests often evoke strong emotions. (This, by the way, is not a bad thing – emotions are strong indicators that a need is either being met or not.)

One way to think of the difference is to consider issues as our plan to satisfy our interests.

So, let’s use the current example of providing education for our middle-school age children.

One of the issues is whether to renovate the old Morgan building as a school or to build a new one. Another is, if building new, should we build on the current site or on a different location? Which other location? The answers to these questions are specific, tangible, and mutually exclusive: if we renovate Morgan as a school, we won’t build a new middle school. If we build a new middle school near Valley View Elementary, we won’t build a new one on the Morgan site. It’s one or the other, so if you’re in favor of one strategy and I’m in favor of another, we argue over which way is better. Convincing the other, or at least 60% of voters, is the only way forward. One of us “wins” and the other “loses”. This can, and does, create lingering animosity within the community.

The interests behind these issues, however, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. This is where we can step back from either/or, my-way-or-the-highway contentiousness. Continuing to use the example of the middle school, what are some of the underlying interests? Well, an obvious one is providing a good education for our children. And making sure the kids are safe. There is the desire to keep costs, and therefore property taxes, low. Aesthetics might be involved, with some liking the historic lines of the old Morgan building that link it to the downtown business district, and others preferring a more modern look. A group of people may value having a performance space available to kids and adults. Or maybe there’s the desire for easy parking and handy student drop-off.

The list of interests can go on and on. Notice, however, that one person may consider many of the above things important. There might, therefore, be many possible ways to meet the needs or interests of almost everyone involved in the situation. We can creatively come up with plans that honor the range of community interests. When focusing on interests, we can come up with solutions that increase the size of the pie, not just cut the same pie different ways. This doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, where someone must lose if someone else wins.

Currently, we can see the middle school conversation beginning to change as people focus on addressing broad community interests and bring new ideas to the table. Regardless of the final solution, backing-off from narrow arguments about issues and instead focusing on the underlying interests or values, allows us to find commonalities and meet the needs of a much larger segment of the community. If everyone is interested in educating our children, we can focus on that commonality. Regardless of the issue, that puts all of us on the same “side”.