How to develop a symphysis proposal

Creating a proposal that is more convincing than anything proposed by the stakeholders is the main challenge of a project on reflective consensus building. We call such a new proposal a symphysis proposal because, in Greek, symphysein means “growing together.”

Whereas “synthesis” refers to “something that is put together,” symphysis is intended to signify an ongoing process of growing together, that is, the evolution of a proposal that is always better — i.e., more broadly acceptable — than its predecessor or predecessors. A symphysis proposal is created based on a reflection on all the proposals put forward by stakeholders. It attempts to cover as many of the motives underlying stakeholder proposals as possible, taking the broadest possible variety of stakeholder interests, goals, and values into account, and trying to find creative solutions and possible win-win solutions. The goal of a symphysis proposal is achieved when all weights that the stakeholders would assign to the proposal are positive or at least neutral.

In what follows we discuss five possible strategies that can help to create such a symphysis proposal.

  1. Focus on the interests of the stakeholders, not their proposals
  2. Reframe stakeholders’ interests
  3. Invent options for mutual gain
  4. Compensation (give and take)
  5. Conflict resolution by expansion


1. Focus on the interests of the stakeholders, not their proposals

Interests refer to the needs, goals, values, and desires people have. Proposals and positions are what they think can help them to meet their interests. Stakeholders might think that their interests are best served by what they are proposing to solve the problem, but their focus on certain proposals often obscures what they really want. It is often the case that conflicts arise over proposals or positions, because they hurt the interests of one party or another, whereas interests–even though they are different–could be accepted as legitimate by all parties. For this reason, negotiation should not focus on the stakeholders’ original proposals and positions but rather on creating new ones that serve all interests.

The recommendation to “focus on interests, not positions” has been made famous by Roger Fisher and William Ury in Getting to Yes. Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (3rd ed. 2011, p. 12). Here are two examples they discuss:

Consider the “story of two men quarreling in a library. One wants the window open and the other wants it closed. They bicker back and forth about how much to leave it open: a crack, halfway, three quarters of the way. No solution satisfy them both.

Enter the librarian. She asks one why he wants the window open: ‘To get some fresh air.’ She asks the other why he wants it closed: ‘To avoid the draft.’ After thinking a minute, she opens wide a window in the next room, bringing in fresh air without a draft.” (Fisher, Ury, and Patton 2011, p. 42)

“When negotiators bargain over positions, they tend to lock themselves into those positions. The more you clarify your positions and defend it against attack, the more committed you become to it. … The danger that positional bargaining will impede a negotiation was well illustrated by the breakdown of the talks under President Kennedy for a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing. A critical question arose: How many on-site inspections per year should the Soviet Union and the United States be permitted to make within the other’s territory to investigate suspicious seismic events? The Soviet Union finally agreed to three inspections. The United States insisted on no less than ten. And there the talks broke down–over positions–despite the fact that no one understood whether an ‘inspection’ would involve one person looking around for one day, or a hundred people prying indiscriminately for a month. The parties had made little attempt to design an inspection procedure that would reconcile the United States’s interest in verification with the desire of both countries for minimal intrusion.” (Fisher, Ury, and Patton 2011, pp. 4-5)

As Carpenter and Kennedy write: “Efforts to solve the problem can be built on the realization that interests are not necessarily in conflict” (1988, p. 62). Also, the following possibilities should be kept in mind:

  • Stakeholders have a multitude of interests, some of them even conflicting. Sometimes agreement can be achieved by focusing on those interests that are shared among stakeholders.
  • It is possible that stakeholders do not really understand their own interests. This is discussed in more detail in the following section.

In your attempts to create a symphysis proposal, check the interests of stakeholders that you listed in your Stakeholder Analysis. Use also the “Interest Map” that visualizes all the interests that you identified. Looking at this visualization should “stimulate ideas for how to meet these interests” (Fisher, Ury, and Patton 2011, p. 51).

The distinction between interests and proposals can help in different ways:

  • If you know that Stakeholder 1 is mainly interested in A and Stakeholder 2 in B, you might come up with a proposal that satisfies both A and B. Rothman (1997) calls this “conflict resolution by differentiation.” His example are two sisters fighting over an orange. One wants fresh orange juice, the other wants to bake an orange cake. After it becomes clear, that the latter only needs the peel, the conflict can be resolved by “differentiation”: one gets the peel, the other the inner parts (pp. 61-62).
  • When you know the interests that motivate the stakeholders’ proposals, you can try to create a symphysis proposal that covers as many of the motives  as possible, taking the broadest possible variety of stakeholder interests, opinions, and values into account. For those that cannot covered this way, use one of the strategies described below.
  • There are always interests on which a stakeholder will never compromise. But these can be used as criteria to assess the acceptability of a symphysis proposal. These interests are those “that need to be met in order to solve the problem in a way that people support” (Schwarz 2002, pp. 117-8).)

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2. Reframe stakeholders’ interests

As we saw above, Fisher, Ury, and Patton suggest in Getting to Yes: “Focus on interests, not positions.” However, three points should be considered with regard to interests:

  1. Stakeholders might not really understand their own interests. The perception of interests can be distorted by ideologies so that it might be necessary to encourage stakeholders to critically reflect on the question what their real interests are.
  2. People can have different interests, and interests can be ranked. It is possible that conflicting parties share important higher-level interests. Try to create a proposal that meets these higher-level interests, and develop arguments that justify that these interests are indeed interests of the stakeholders.
  3. The perception of one’s own interests can change when one’s perception of a controversial issue changes. Issues are often portrayed in a way that speaks to specific interests but not to others that might be equally relevant. As Donald Schön and Martin Rein point out in their book Frame Reflection (1994), “when participants in a negotiation come to change in fundamental ways how they represent the policy issue or situation with which they are dealing, they are likely also to change the definition of their interests” (pp. 20-21). As an example, they point to a regional consensus finding process on public housing in which stakeholders began to realize that the housing issue is not “simply one of homeless people on urban streets,” with regard to which the only question is “who would be stuck with the financial and environmental costs of affordable housing.” Instead, they saw that the real issue was “the need to provide their own municipal workers with a place to live.” This kind of “reframing” the issue allowed the stakeholders to reframe their “original narrow interests in terms of newly revealed relationships and public values” (Wheeler 1993, p. 143). What is important here is that simply changing the description of the problem or conflict can fundamentally change the way people “frame” or perceive the entire situation.

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3. Invent options for mutual gain

“Find a creative solution, which either sidesteps the difference or somehow allows both (or all) parties to meet their respective objectives” (quoted from Since this is certainly easier said than done, it might be helpful to summarize the considerations by Fisher, Ury, and Patton in Getting to Yes on creative inventions in negotiations. (It is worth the effort to read Chapter 4 of the book.) The authors distinguish four obstacles to inventing options and provide “prescriptions” for each of them:

  1. “Nothing is so harmful to inventing as a critical sense waiting to pounce on the drawbacks of any new idea” (p. 60). Ideas that are not even formulated because we are too critical towards them are not available as a stimulation for better ideas. Fisher, Ury, and Patton recommend to write everything out to keep the stimulation going. Also, writing things down creates a sense of achievement (p. 64).
  2. A second obstacle to inventing is “searching for the single answer” (p. 60). Instead, they recommend to “broaden your options” (pp. 67-72).
    1. One way to achieve this is by switching between different points of view: thinking about the factual situation of a particular problem; then about its diagnosis “in general terms,” treating it as a case of certain type of problem; then think about, again in general terms, “what ought, perhaps, to be done”; and finally, focusing again on the particular situation, “come up with some specific and feasible suggestions for actions.”
    2. A second possibility to broaden options is to look at the problem “through the eyes of different experts.” What would a variety of professionals suggest as options? Policy analysts? Psychologists? Economists? Engineers? Business people? Educators? Coaches?
    3. A third way to “multiply the number of possible agreements” that Fisher, Ury, and Patton consider is to add to each “stronger” agreement a “weaker one”: to a substantive agreement a procedural one, to a permanent one a provisional, to a comprehensive a partial, to a final an “in principle,” to an unconditional a contingent, to a binding a nonbinding, and to a first-order a second-order agreement.
    4. A fourth possibility is to change “the scope of a proposed agreement” by not only limiting its strength, but also by focusing on “smaller and perhaps more manageable units.” But the scope can also be enlarged so that elements can be included that are attractive for stakeholders.
  3. The third obstacle to inventing options “for mutual gain” that Fisher, Ury, and Patton discuss is the assumption that problems can be reduced to who gets what from a “fixed pie” (p. 61). Instead of assuming that “the less for you” means “the more for me,” they suggest to consider “the possibility of joint gain.” Sometimes problems can be resolved by identifying “shared interests” that allow the creation of options that simply don’t become visible when each party only focuses on their own interests. At other times, it helps to figure out what people really want as in the story about two children quarreling over an orange: “After they finally agree to divide the orange in half, the first child took one half, ate the fruit, and threw away the peel, while the other threw away the the fruit and used the peel from the second half in baking a cake” (p. 58-59). Identifying those differences can lead to solutions (pp. 72-77). This is the foundation of what we described above as Rothman’s (1997) “conflict resolution by differentiation.”
  4. “A final obstacle to inventing realistic options lies in each side’s concern with only its own immediate interests” (p. 61). But: “Since success for you in a negotiation depends upon the other side’s making a decision you want, you should do what you can to make this decision an easy one.  Without some option that appeal to them, there is likely to be no agreement at all” (p. 78). Part of this strategy can be to shape proposals in a way that the interests of others are recognized as legitimate; or to look at your own proposal from their point of view:

“To evaluate an option from the other side’s point of view, consider how they might be criticized if they adopted it. Write out a sentence or two illustrating what the other side’s most powerful critic might say about the decision you are thinking of asking for. Then write out a couple of sentences with which the other side might reply in defense. Such an exercise will help you appreciate the restraints within which the other side is negotiating. It should help you generate options that will adequately meet their interests so that they can make a decision that meets yours.” (pp. 80-81)

Acknowledging the other side’s interests as legitimate can be combined with the following strategy.

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4. Compensation (give and take)

As Rothman (1997) discusses, we can “offer exchanges or provide compensation” for interests after we clarified how much each party values certain needs and interests. Using again the example of the two sisters haggling over an orange, we writes:

“In the case of the orange, the sisters may discover that they prioritize the value of the orange differently. Because one sister needs to drink her juice soon, and the baker decides she can wait several hours to make her cake, they agree that the first sister’s need is more immediate. They decide that she will get the orange and give the other some money (worth more than the price of a single orange) to compensate her for the trouble of having to go buy another one.” (p. 64)

Let others have their preference on some aspects in exchange for their allowing you to have your way on other points. “Give” others something that they value, so that they will let you have your way on something your stakeholder is interested in. Note that compensation does not necessarily mean money; it can mean other, specifically designed benefits.

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5. Conflict resolution by expansion

Rothman (1997) points out that sometimes conflicts can be resolved by enlarging “the amount, type, or use of available resources.” The sisters might explore ways to enlarge the amount of oranges. Other resources can be cultivated, or adversaries look for outside funding or other support (pp. 62-63).

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Carpenter, S. L., & Kennedy, W. J. D. (1988). Managing public disputes : a practical guide to handling conflict and reaching agreements (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fisher, R., Ury, W., & Patton, B. (2011 <1981>). Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (3rd ed.). New York: Penguin Books.

Rothman, J. (1997). Resolving Identity Conflicts in Nations, Organizations, and Communities. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schön, D. A., & Rein, M. (1994). Frame reflection. Toward the resolution of intractable policy controversies. New York: BasicBooks.

Schwarz, R. M. (2002). The skilled facilitator : a comprehensive resource for consultants, facilitators, managers, trainers, and coaches (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wheeler, M. (1993). Regional Consensus on Affordable Housing: Yes in My Backyard? Journal of Planning Education and Research, 12(2), 139–149.