Understanding Interests

by Mark Weiss November 17, 2012

My “Interests”? On my mortgage and credit card?

Sometimes working with clients can seem like a conversation in the Tower of Babel. How often have you tried to explain interest-based negotiation only to get a blank stare from your client? Or watched your client disengage as soon as the words “interests” or “needs” are uttered? If your experience is at all like mine, you’ve had that experience more than once. As professionals, we naturally become discouraged when our clients don’t seem to “get it.” When we are unsuccessful, perhaps we might even judge and label the client (he or she is “not collaborative” or “positional”). Unable to work with a key concept, the Tower collapses and the client typically goes to positions, or remains unfocused, or becomes frustrated.

What if we had a simple trick that could dramatically increase our success rate? One that helps clients better understand what we mean when we talk about “interests”? One that does not leave clients resorting to positions or being elusive? One that empowers them to create a good list of interests on which to base problem solving?

A Client’s Present Sense Impression

If the professional and client speak different languages, perhaps a good translation could be a good start. When we use a word like “interests” we use jargon. Every profession has its jargon – its shorthand – so professionals can efficiently discuss concepts. For example, a lawyer in a common law country might understand the “present sense impression” exception to hearsay, but not many others will. Similarly, asking clients for their “interests” is asking them to understand a foreign language or jargon. To one of my former clients, an “interest” is what he had in my then-secretary; I could have been speaking Arabic trying convince him otherwise. I lacked the vocabulary to help this client understand – especially since he (like so many of our clients) was more comfortable with the concrete than the abstract.

Convinced that speaking a common language might be useful, I (and many others) have experimented with different language to more easily translate for clients the abstract concept of an “interest.”

Key Elements of Agreement

After several experiments, I settled (for now) on a new vocabulary which has markedly increased my success. I have substituted the phrase “Key Elements of Agreement” for “Interests.” I now ask my client for his or her “Key Elements of Agreement.” Clients can better understand that “Key Elements of Agreement” are not the agreement itself, but an intermediate place that contains the criteria that an agreement will need to cover if it is to be acceptable. As homework, a client creates a draft list of “Key Elements” with instructions to write the list so there will be a multitude of ways to address what’s listed, yet are complete and specific enough that any agreement that addresses the “Key Elements” would be acceptable. Because clients can see the connection between the “Key Elements of Agreement” and the end product, they tend to be more engaged. And while sometimes a client’s first draft will still be too vague or too specific, it seems to take much less of a redirect (and maybe some examples) for the client to understand and create what is needed prior to the joint session. When a simple translation from our professional jargon to vocabulary the client can better understand – “Key Elements of Agreement” – we take a step away from the Tower of Babel.

What Next?

Try this out and run the experiment for yourself. By replacing the word “Interests” and substituting “Key Elements of Agreement,” I have found what can be a more effective way to explain interests.

This is just one such idea. I wonder what has worked for you. Many of you have developed your own effective ways to explain this abstract concept of “interests” to clients. Join the conversation and share by commenting below.

Comments (4) -

mediationnotwar@gmail.comUnited States
12/6/2012 1:50:06 AM #

Mark, this touches on something which I've been trying to stir up some interest over in England for a couple of years: unsuccessfully, mind! And that is the language we use. I  agree completely that we should be thinking much more about the words we choose if we want our customers to understand the information and advice we hand out, or to change their behaviour. For example, in the UK, many lawyers use the term "contact" rather than "parenting time". Contact is a word enshrined in legislation solawyers naturally embrace it. But it's horrible to read about a father's contact time with his child. It makes it sound clinical and unnatural. But trying to get lawyers to change to "parenting time" is not easy.

Recent research indicates that while "mediation" still has poor recognition among the public (somewhere around 40% from memory)for a process that's been around for over 30 years,  "collaboration" has even poorer recognition. I am now beginning to avoid expressly promoting myself as, amongst other things, a collaborative lawyer. While I won't undertake litigation, if I put "collaborative lawyer" too prominently on my publicity materials, it may cause those who don't understand what it is to turn away before speaking to me. I'd be interested to hear if anyone else does this.

View my profile on www.collaborativepractice.com

kevin@scudderlaw.netUnited States
12/14/2012 11:15:54 PM #

Mark, I like your invitation to use a different approach and different terms.  I had the pleasure of attending your 2012 presentation at CPW in Gig Harbor, WA, and it gave me some solace and relief.

I have found that I am uncomfortable, lacking in confidence, and confused by the traditional brainstorming process in which I was trained.  It just did not seem to fit and my confusion and discomfort only helped to make the process for the clients that much more difficult.

For me, use of the term key elements makes a lot more sense.  I can inquire of my client the key elements that they need in their final resolution.  It is unwieldy to inquire of the clients what their brainstorm brought up for them.

I just used this concept in talking with a client last night about the framework of an agreement that we have reached.  We talked about his previously stated high end goals but it was the discussion of whether the terms contained all the key elements of what he wanted in the final agreement.  It turns out it didn't, so we spent more time defining in clear terms what other key elements needed to be addressed before a final agreement can be reached.

It was a conversation that was authentic and productive, and one in which I learned a lot more about my client by being able to speak in terms in which we both had a good understanding.

View my profile on www.collaborativepractice.com

mike@seattledivorceservices.comUnited States
1/15/2013 1:53:56 PM #

I really like this emphasis on "key elements" that has been discussed recently, but am still learning how to incorporate it into my own work.  The idea that we can replace language of "interests" with "key elements" in our discussions with clients helps clarify the concept for me as well.  Starting to use that language from the very start will, I think, lay a better foundation for the discussions to come.  Thank you for that Mark!

By the way, do you still use language about "goals", or do you replace that as well?

View my profile on www.collaborativepractice.com

4/29/2013 10:23:38 PM #

I'll re read 'Getting to Yes'

View my profile on www.collaborativepractice.com

Add comment

  • Comment
  • Preview


The Bigger Conversation

Be a part of the conversation! Learn about the latest thoughts, trends and developments in Collaborative Practice from IACP’s Brain Trust, and then join the discussion with other members across the globe. This is your opportunity to be heard; share your experience, knowledge and insights with the rest of us. We’ll all benefit.

Our Featured Bloggers will rotate over time. If you are interested in becoming a Featured Blogger and posting regularly, please contact us at info@be-fulfilled.org. We also welcome periodic submissions from Guest Bloggers. If you have a post to share as a guest, please send your post to us at info@be-fulfilled.org.



Month List