The new year can inspire decision-making and action that contribute to a healthier and happier life—professionally and personally. New Year’s resolutions top the list but often prove to be short-lived, however well-intended and informed. Resolutions aside, we often contemplate ways of enhancing our health, happiness, and productivity. In this month’s column, we’ll explore a method for following through on our intentions.
When you find yourself at the familiar crossroads of deciding whether or not to stick with a plan (e.g., getting out of bed when the alarm rings, going to the gym, not eating at night, not interrupting someone), there is often an internal negotiation going on within you. If you pay close attention, you will detect internal voices advocating for different positions, which I like to call a “me-gotiation.”
At such times, we are literally negotiating with ourselves: “press snooze one more time” versus “no, get up now.” Practicing mindfulness involves allocating time to turn attention inward and notice the changing landscape of our thoughts, feelings, and sensations. This can be useful because each internal advocate for a position is composed of a set of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that influence our decision-making. “Press snooze” is a thought associated with various feelings and body sensations. So, too, is “get up now.” The more we practice mindfulness, the more likely we are to be aware of me-gotiations.
In his 2002 Harvard Negotiation Law Review article “Practicing from the Inside Out,” author Steven Keeva refers to the importance of dropping beneath the surface so that we can access more of what is motivating our beliefs and decision-making and connect with our shared humanity with others. While Keeva does not address internal negotiations, the piece is one I highly recommend—especially at the start of a new year—as it offers an insightful look into the heart of our inner lives and a reminder of how a sense of meaning and purpose can get lost in the shuffle of a career in the law.
Dropping Beneath the Surface: Moving from Positions to Interests
An effective negotiation technique—first popularized by Roger Fisher and William Ury in their 1981 book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In—involves moving from positions to interests. And just as parties to a negotiation have different positions, so, too, do we when me-gotiating with ourselves. At such times, and with sufficient self-awareness, we can drop beneath the surface of our me-gotiations and examine the interests underlying our positions. By doing so, we may find common ground with ourselves. We start by asking ourselves “why” a position is important.
Orange You Glad You Noticed the Me-gotiation
An example can be found in a slight twist to a classic negotiation lesson. Imagine you are preparing a meal and plan to make two dishes. Both recipes call for an orange. You have one orange, and you don’t have time to get another. What do you do? At the surface level, you might think that you have no choice but to make only one dish. If you turn to the interests at stake, however, and ask yourself “why” you need an orange, everything changes. One recipe calls for the rind, the other for the juice. In an instant, the me-gotiation dissolves. While negotiations (and me-gotiations) tend not to be so easily resolved, headway can be made by dropping beneath the surface of positions and inquiring about the interests underlying them.
In practical terms, people can get locked into their positions. At such times, creative solutions become less accessible, and compromise becomes less tolerable. Even so, the technique of moving from positions to interests generates movement. If you delve into the needs, interests, and concerns underlying your own warring positions, you may find a compromise with which both you—and you—can live.
Moving from Oranges to Pizzas
Let’s say that you have a New Year’s resolution to not eat after 8:00 pm. One night, at 9:00 pm, you wander into the kitchen and find yourself looking into the fridge at a piece of leftover pizza. Hello, me-gotiation! Part of you wants to eat it, while another part of you is done eating for the evening. Which will prevail? And is it a zero-sum game where one part wins and the other loses?
There are three good reasons why turning from positions to interests can prove helpful. One is that identifying interests can loosen the rigidity of a fixed position and lead to the generation of a range of possible solutions. Another is that doing so can remind us of the deeply held values and concerns that prompted us to stake out the position in the first place. While neither of these reasons necessitates practicing mindfulness meditation, doing so can help us notice sooner when a me-gotiation arises in the first place and hold the focus on underlying interests.
One mindfulness practice involves placing attention on the breath and returning it to the breath each time we notice the mind wandering. This enables us to more readily detect the arising of thoughts—and inevitably of competing thoughts. Over time, we cultivate the capacity to hold steady and observe the interplay of different positions, as opposed to hastily resolving them. We also become less likely to confuse our true nature with the positions that we take. We might, for example, regard the more noble of two positions as an expression of our “true self” or “mindful self” (e.g., to manage impulses and not eat late) when, in fact, we are merely identifying with one position more than the other.
A core mindfulness insight is that we are not our positions—which are continually in flux, unpredictable, and changing—but the one who observes our positions. We are not the parties to an adversarial proceeding but the neutral third-party mediator who can observe the conflict and see the bigger picture. This brings us to the third reason to turn from positions to interests, and one that becomes increasingly available to us through ongoing mindfulness practice: to see things more clearly.
Seeing Things More Clearly
By practicing mindfulness and becoming more aware of our interior landscape of thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, we are better able to refrain from seeking immediate gratification (which ends a me-gotiation) and instead observe the me-gotiation as it plays out (for at least a little longer). Doing so, we not only gather more information to better flesh out our underlying interests, but we also realize with greater clarity the transient, fluctuating, and changing nature of the thoughts, feelings, and body sensations that comprise them and our positions. With this realization, the grip of urges and impulses loosens, and we can find ourselves better able to abide by a well-considered position or generate and select a thoughtful and practical alternative solution.
Life is complicated enough with the endless negotiations we have with other people. Whether navigating traffic, deciding where to go to dinner, or working on a business deal, it is often the case that we ourselves are conflicted at times. Sorting out these internal conflicts (e.g., “cut off that car” versus “be nice and let the driver in”) goes a long way to resolving external negotiations. As the new year has just begun, keep an eye out for me-gotiations, drop beneath the surface, ask yourself “why” a position matters to you, and see what might begin to shift.
Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 13, Number 6, January 2024. © 2024 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.