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The Power of Interest-Based Negotiation in Long-Term Planning

Jeff Lineberger believes the best path to long-term planning and effective communication is interest-based negotiation.
Jeff Lineberger believes the best path to long-term planning and effective communication is interest-based negotiation.

Interest-based negotiation is a collaborative approach to resolving conflicts and making decisions, particularly valuable in long-term planning processes. This method focuses on understanding and addressing the underlying interests of all parties involved rather than merely negotiating positions. By emphasizing mutual gains and fostering cooperation, interest-based negotiation can lead to more sustainable and satisfactory outcomes.


These are three major aspects of interest-based negotiation.

1. Understanding Interests, Not Positions

In interest-based negotiation, the primary goal is to uncover and address the true interests of the parties involved. Interests are the underlying reasons, needs, and concerns that drive people's positions. For example, in a city planning process, one group may advocate for more parks (position) because they value green space for recreation and environmental benefits (interests). By focusing on these interests, negotiators can explore various solutions that satisfy the core needs of all parties, leading to more creative and acceptable outcomes.

It has been my experience that most of us are born positional bargainers, so the concept of peeling back those positions to find the real driving interest does not come naturally. In very important negotiations, it can even be helpful to invest in training the party representatives (including your own) to recognize the difference, understand how to write a clear statement of their interests and how to communicate their interests to the rest of the group.

We, in fact, used this approach to train many of the 160 involved stakeholders and then have them write and share their interest statements at the beginning of a three-year effort to negotiate a binding relicensing agreement for the Catawba-Wateree Hydro Project. The stakeholder teams then focused on those written interest statements (over 2500 individual interests) and together, we crafted options to address those interests in a meaningful way. Without taking the time to truly understand interests and examine our own on the front end, I am confident most stakeholders would have been lost in a swirl of mutually exclusive positions from the outset.

It's also important to spend adequate time understanding interests BEFORE trotting out options to resolve the differences. First, you need to define the problem (i.e., the various, sometimes competing interests the team is trying to address), THEN move ahead to solution space.


2. Generating Options for Mutual Gain

Interest-based negotiation encourages the generation of multiple options before deciding on a solution. This brainstorming phase is crucial for finding innovative solutions that can meet the interests of all parties. In long-term planning, this might involve considering various development plans, funding sources, and timelines that balance economic growth with community well-being.

While it's most helpful to have an experienced, unaffiliated, third-party facilitator leading the entire process, it can be critical at this stage. It's next to impossible for one of the stakeholders to be a truly unbiased process leader and this stage of the negotiation really requires the participants to let their guard down long enough to understand the pros and cons of the various proposed solutions. Someone, typically the convening authority (e.g., the government entity responsible for the planning process), would need to contract for the facilitator's services; however, the facilitator should be focused on process success, not trying to ensure a particular participant "wins." For our hydro relicensing processes, we have employed third-party facilitators and have taken great care to ensure we don't disclose our own must-haves to the facilitator. Process integrity demands this kind of separation.

It can also be very helpful to lay down some ground rules around the discussion of solutions. In hydro relicensing processes, we have called these proposed solutions trial balloons and included the understanding they can be withdrawn, in whole or in part, for any reason and at any time prior to signing a final, binding agreement. This technique removes the anxiety of implied commitments that could otherwise act as a major deterrent for creative thinking and deprive the group of elegant solutions.


3. Building Relationships and Trust

A key aspect of interest-based negotiation is building and maintaining positive relationships. Trust and effective communication are essential for uncovering true interests and working collaboratively. In long-term planning, stakeholders such as government agencies, developers, and community groups need to work together over extended periods. Establishing trust helps ensure that agreements are upheld and that parties remain committed to the shared goals.

It's also important to acknowledge trust must be earned through action. Power does not equal implied trust. In fact, the party with the most power at the table (e.g., the convening authority) is often not trusted from the beginning, regardless of their own good-faith intentions. While both words and actions can be critical to success, remaining true to your commitments, however difficult they may be, can build the kind of long-lasting trust that is the foundation for long-term success.


Two Other Types of Negotiation

Distributive negotiation is typically seen in scenarios where resources are limited and each party aims to maximize their share. This zero-sum approach often results in one party's gain being another party's loss. For example, in a budget allocation meeting, departments might fight for a larger share of a fixed budget, leading to a competitive and adversarial atmosphere. This approach can be detrimental in long-term planning, where ongoing cooperation and future relationships are crucial. If the relationship truly matters, be very careful about using processes that create winners and losers. Nobody wants to lose and probably won't stick around after their first big loss.


Integrative negotiation shares similarities with interest-based negotiation in that it seeks win-win solutions. However, integrative negotiation often focuses more on combining resources and finding complementary benefits. For example, two companies might form a strategic alliance where one provides technological expertise while the other offers market access, benefiting both. While integrative negotiation is collaborative, it may not always delve deeply into the underlying interests of each party as thoroughly as interest-based negotiation does. To be most effective, integrative negotiation also benefits from some amount of equity in terms of what can be given by each party. A solution where one party is really the one bringing everything to the table may have a short half-life that may not survive the natural change out of party representatives.


Conclusions on Interest-Based Negotiation

Interest-based negotiation is particularly effective in long-term planning processes due to its focus on understanding interests, generating mutually beneficial options, and building trust. Addressing the root causes of conflicts and focusing on collaboration can lead to more durable and satisfactory outcomes compared to distributive negotiation. While similar to integrative negotiation in its pursuit of win-win solutions, interest-based negotiation distinguishes itself by deeply exploring the underlying interests of all parties, ensuring that solutions are not only creative but also genuinely aligned with the needs and values of those involved. This approach fosters a cooperative atmosphere that is essential for the sustained success of long-term projects.


The Catawba-Wateree Hydro Project relicensing process mentioned earlier resulted in a binding Comprehensive Relicensing Agreement (CRA), signed in 2006 by 70 parties, including 27 local government entities. Now in its 18th year of implementation, the CRA has endured the change out of many of its party representatives, guided tens of millions of dollars worth of investment, significantly reshaped the operation of an 11-lake hydropower development on a river spanning two states, and spawned the highly effective Catawba-Wateree Drought Management Advisory Group and the Catawba-Wateree Water Management Group. The CRA even helped settle a US Supreme Court case.


Without the interest-based negotiation the stakeholders committed to in 2003, I really believe we would still not have a New License (which was issued in 2015) and perhaps none of the above benefits would have come to fruition. So please don't think these long-range planning processes don't matter----they do and they really, really can change how we treat each other and how well or not we can rise to future challenges. As Helen Keller said, "Alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much."


Let's go "all-in" to get together and negotiate in good faith via interest-based processes. We might even have a shot at restoring perhaps the greatest tool for effective communication and living well with each other----being able once again to disagree without being disagreeable. Now, wouldn't that be something?


Jeff Lineberger, PE has been with Duke Energy for 32 years and is currently Director of Water Strategy & Hydro Licensing, providing leadership for licensing and compliance at 28 hydropower stations in the Carolinas and Midwest, and drought response coordination & long range water supply planning for 39 reservoirs in the Carolinas. Jeff's team also leads public recreation area planning and management of 132 public recreation areas around the Carolinas' reservoirs.

Jeff has led negotiations settling several hydropower relicensing efforts including a 70-party agreement for the Catawba-Wateree Hydro Project which fostered the settlement of a US Supreme Court case (SC v. NC, No. 138, Original), a 17-party relicensing agreement for the Keowee-Toxaway Hydro Project and a new operating agreement coordinating the operation of the Keowee-Toxaway and Bad Creek hydro projects with three hydro projects located downstream in the Savannah River Basin which are operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Jeff is a two-time winner of the James B. Duke Award for these hydro relicensing efforts, including being one of the inaugural winners in 2007.

Since its incorporation in 2007, Jeff has been a director of the Catawba-Wateree Water Management Group, a 501c (3) non-profit composed of Duke Energy and 18 public water utilities sharing a common water supply. He is also on the South Carolina Water Planning Process Advisory Committee and is Duke Energy's primary representative to the National Hydropower Association.


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