Discovering Objectives and Values -
The Key to Creative, Win/Win Conflict Resolution

© 2001 Kelly Patrick Gerling, Ph.D.
Published in The Spinal Column, Nelson-Marlborough Health Services, Nelson New Zealand, February, 2001

In the late 1970s, US President Jimmy Carter mediated a conflict between Israel and Egypt at Camp David, in Maryland. Prime Minister Menachem Begin represented Israel and President Anwar al-Sadat represented Egypt. The eventual agreement, known as the Camp David Accords, led to a Nobel Peace Prize for Sadat and Begin.

This particular conflict reached an impasse. Here is what happened.

They reached that part in the negotiation where they needed to resolve the issue of the Sinai peninsula - a piece of land conquered by Israel that had been Egyptian for thousands of years.

From the available evidence, I imagine the discussion went something like this:

Jimmy Carter (the mediator): Okay, let's deal with the Sinai issue. Perhaps each of you can state your position at this time.

Anwar Sadat: The Sinai has been Egyptian since the Pharaohs built the pyramids and we are not willing to tolerate Israel's current occupation of this part of Egypt's historical territory.

Carter: And your position Menachem?

Menachem Begin: We won the Sinai after Egypt attacked us in 1967 and we want to keep it. Wars have consequences. We didn't start it, but we won. The Sinai is ours now.

Carter: How about splitting it in some way so that . . .

Sadat: (interrupting) No. Excuse me Jimmy, but nothing less than the entire Sinai is acceptable.

Begin: We have it and Egypt can't have any of it.

At this point they were blocked. The negotiation reached an impasse with each participant stuck in mutually exclusive positions. When they reconvened, Carter asked a key question of each negotiator.

Carter: Let's explore your objectives in a more thorough way. To each of you I ask, what is important about what you want? Think about it for a few moments. Let the question sink into your being. What is important about what you want?

Sadat: What do you mean exactly Jimmy?

Carter: What I mean is, what will it do for you and your people to get the Sinai back? In other words, what important advantages or benefits will you get by having the Sinai again?

Sadat: Oh, I think I understand. The important advantage we seek from the return of the Sinai is sovereignty over the area. The people of Egypt identify with the Sinai as theirs. When the Egyptian flag once again waves over land that has been theirs since the Pharaohs, they will be happy indeed.

Carter: Okay, so sovereignty is what you value the most regarding the land.

Sadat: Yes. You understand Jimmy.

Carter: How about your answer to that question Menachem?

Begin: Actually, it isn't sovereignty that the Israelis want. Rather, what is important to us is security. You see, if we control the Sinai, Egypt cannot attack us from there, as they have in the past. Security from attack is what we value the most from keeping the Sinai under Israeli control. We want to feel safe.

Carter: Okay. regarding the Sinai, you want sovereignty Anwar. And Menachem, you want security.

Sadat and Begin: Yes. Yes.

Carter: Now let's explore possible options for having both Israeli security and Egyptian sovereignty regarding the Sinai. First let's take a break and start thinking about options.

The three of them thought about it for a while. I don't know who came up with the idea, but eventually, a solution emerged that became obvious to everyone. The Egyptians would be given sovereignty over a demilitarized Sinai.

The Egyptians got their flag flying over the Sinai. And with a verifiable and enforceable demilitarized zone covering the entire Sinai, the Israelis got security, for no military weapons were allowed in the Sinai.

This agreement has stood for over twenty two years.

What can we learn from this example?

When the two parties to a conflict encounter a seemingly impossible impasse, it is important to explore the objectives and values underlying each person's problem and initial proposed solution.

After the discussion has progressed from a story about a problem to a description of a desired objective (through Requesting and Leadership Counselling) the key question to ask is:

What is important to you about what you want?

There are many other variations on this question that work just as well. Here are a few examples:

  • What is the advantage you seek in getting your objective?
  • What benefits would come to you from having X, your stated goal?
  • How would you gain from getting that for yourself?
  • What would you get from having that objective?
  • If you got X, how would that help you?
  • These questions each direct the listener's attention to their deeper objectives and the values that would be fulfilled if their objectives were achieved.

    The answers that emerge from these questions open up opportunities to find creative solutions for bringing about a win/win result to the conflict.

    In terms of the written VBL skills, these questions are built into the processes of Requesting and Leadership Counselling. They also form the third step of the six-step VBL negotiating and mediating method for problem-solving and conflict resolution. (As you might guess, Option Generation is the fourth step.)

    The key pattern is to take the conversation from problems, to objectives, to deeper objectives (by asking these questions) and further to the values that would be fulfilled when the deeper objectives are achieved. Once this happens, there is a possibility of getting through an impasse through new options that satisfy both sides of the disagreement. Then you may design a win/win solution. To see a visual version of this idea look at the graphic of this process.

    This pattern forms the essential foundation for the VBL Negotiating method. When you use this in one of your conflicts, I hope you will write in with your case and let me know about it. I'd love to share it with the other readers of VBL News in a future column for their benefit.

    Written descriptions of all the VBL skills can be found at the new website in the private, clients-only part of the site, the Client Area. To get there, type in the following URL address on the web:

    May your conflicts turn into win/win solutions.

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