As you all know, my slogan is, “Get more of what you need from others, while building bridges, not burning them.” The most magical aspect of the consensus building system I teach also happens to be the most difficult for people to believe. Building consensus without burning bridges need not mean compromise. It does not mean giving in to the other person in order to keep the peace. You can actually get more of what you want while also building bridges, not burning them.

Here’s an example from my book Love on the Rocks with a Twist–Delightful Fiction with Lessons on Dealing with Others.

Let’s say a couple, Tess and Johnny, discuss taking a two-week vacation. Tess wants to stay in a nice hotel in a big city where her Aunt Mary and Uncle Bob live. Johnny wants to go camping at a state park.

Johnny suggests a compromise: they divide their time between the city and the park. They begin to haggle about how many days they will spend in each place. Johnny establishes a bottom line: they must spend at least ten days camping. Tess contends that they must spend at least ten days in the city.

They could compromise, spend one week in the city and one week camping, but neither is happy with that plan. It doesn’t meet either Johnny’s or Tess’s bottom line.

Suppose Johnny gives in to Tess. He agrees to spend ten days in the city and four days camping. Even then, Tess isn’t really happy because, truth be told, she doesn’t want to go camping at all. Conversely, if Tess gave in and agreed to spend ten days camping, Johnny wouldn’t be satisfied because he wants to spend as much time as possible in the park.

A better criterion for assessing a potential vacation plan is a Walkaway Alternative. To develop a Walkaway Alternative:

  1. You identify all the interests you would ideally like to satisfy by agreement with the other party.
  2. Then, you ask yourself, “What’s the very best thing I can do, all by myself, without any agreement or cooperation from the other person, to satisfy the interests I’ve identified?” In other words, “What will I do to address my interests if I have to, or decide to, walk away from dealing with this person?” That’s your Walkaway Alternative plan.
  3. Finally, you ask yourself, “Which will better satisfy the interests I identified, the proposal on the table, or my Walkaway Alternative? If the deal on the table satisfies your interests better, accept it. If your Walkaway Alternative satisfies your interests better, walk away.

To determine her Walkaway Alternative, Tess first clarifies her interests by asking herself my Magic Question, “Why?” Why does she want to spend two weeks in the city and no time camping. Her answers are:

  • I want to sleep in a real bed at night. I can’t sleep well (if at all) on the ground, not even with a camp pad or air mattress. I can’t even sleep well on a cot.
  • I want to sleep where it’s easy to get to the bathroom at night. When camping, by the time I find a flashlight, unzip the tent, crawl out, zip up to keep the mosquitos out while I’m gone, walk to the appropriate location (in the dark, which is scary), then reverse that whole process to get back in the tent, I’m so wide awake that it’s hard to get back to sleep.
  • It’s not a real vacation to me if we still have to cook. In fact, cooking outdoors is even harder than cooking inside.
  • I want to visit with my aunt and uncle and see some museums in the city.

Tess has another interest with respect to the vacation. Though unrelated to why she prefers a city visit to camping out, this interest is an important one, and she adds it to the list:

  • Spend some vacation time with Johnny.

Now, Tess crafts a Walkaway Alternative plan. She looks at all the things she can do to satisfy her actual interests without any cooperation from Johnny. She lists everything, even options she doesn’t like, such as “Separate vacations, mine in the city, Johnny’s at the park.”

I advise clients to list even unacceptable options because, sometimes, when we reflect on an unappealing idea, it inspires another idea that’s more acceptable. Tess’s spinoff idea might be acceptable to Johnny as well.

For example, writing “separate vacations” on her list might inspire Tess to think that, if Johnny would camp somewhere within an easy drive from the city, she could spend her nights in town and drive out to the park to hike with him during some of the days. But if Tess left “separate vacations” off her list, she might not ever think of sleeping in town and visiting Johnny during some of the days.

Tess comes up with the following list of Walkaway Options:

  • Separate vacations
  • I don’t go on vacation at all
  • Give in, go camping

Now Tess looks for ways to improve on these Walkaway Options and adds them, so that her list looks like this:

  • Separate vacations
    • Invite sister or friend to go with me
  • I don’t go on vacation at all
    • Stay-cation, take the time off work and do nice things near home
      • Day spa
      • Invite Aunt Mary and Uncle Bob to visit me
    • Give in, go camping
      • Ask doctor for safe sleeping pill

Notice how including, “Give in, go camping,” on the list inspired Tess to think about ways to make even a total capitulation a bit more acceptable.

Tess decides her best Walkaway Alternative is to take a vacation with her sister in the city where their aunt and uncle live. This is what she will do if she decides to walk away from trying to reach agreement with Johnny.

Note that Tess does not include the spin-off idea of spending her nights in town and visiting Johnny at the park during some of the days. That is not a Walkaway Option; it’s not something she can do all by herself without cooperation from Johnny. Johnny would have to agree with the plan, in particular, about camping within easy driving distance of the city. In fact, any option that satisfies Tess’s interest in spending vacation time with Johnny requires his agreement.

Next, instead of trying to compromise with Johnny on the number of days they spend in the city, Tess tells him about the underlying interests she would like to satisfy: sleep in a real bed with easy access to a bathroom; stay near a restaurant; visit with Aunt Mary and Uncle Bob; and spend at least some vacation time with you.

Next, she uncovers Johnny’s interests. She asks him the Magic Question, Why?“ Why do you want to spend all your time at the park?” Johnny replies that he wants to do as much birding as possible and see as many different species as possible. Therefore, he wants to be in place in the woods just after dawn when the birds are most active. He also wants to be in the park at night to view owls and nightjars.

As they discuss ways to satisfy both sets of interests, it occurs to them that they could vacation at a national park that has a lodge and restaurant, such as Big Bend or Bryce Canyon. They could visit Tess’s Aunt Mary and Uncle Bob on the next long weekend or invite Mary and Bob to visit Tess and Johnny at their home.

Now, comparing this plan with her best Walkaway Alternative, vacationing with her sister, Tess easily sees that her interests will be far better satisfied by vacationing at a park with lodge, etc. than by vacationing without Johnny. The new plan satisfies all her interests, including spending vacation time with Johnny. And it satisfies Johnny’s interest in being in the park at dawn and at night.

Even though the new plan puts Tess in the park day and night for the full two weeks, it satisfies her interests better than a compromise that would have met a bottom line of at least ten days in the city and no more than four days in the park. Interest-based discussion, assessed by means of a Walkaway Alternative, served both Tess and Johnny much better than numerical compromise assessed by bottom (or top) lines.

If you like this example, you’ll love the rest of Love on the Rocks with a Twist.