Applying Conflict Resolution Skills in Health Care PART III: Focus on Interests, Not Positions


By Holly Hayes

Our health care conflict resolution series began with Part I, applying the “principled negotiation” method to health care (post available here) and followed with Part II, examining a case study of “Separating the People from the Problem” (post available here).

In this post, let’s take an example of a physician and a hospital group negotiating to buy the physician’s practice to see how “positional bargaining” results in failure to find a solution.

Physician: I need you to buy my practice for $X and I will not take weekend call. If you don’t want to buy my practice, my partners and I can take it down the road to hospital Y.

Hospital Representative: We are willing to offer you $Z for your practice and we must have a weekend call rotation as part of the deal.

Physician: You don’t care about me or my practice, this discussion is over.

Wise solutions acknowledge interests, not positions. The basic problem with the physician and the hospital representative is not that one is buying and one is selling, the conflict is between their interests or their concerns, fears, needs and desires related to the negotiation. What are some tools to help reconcile interests rather than merely seeking to compromise positions?

In Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury describe techniques for identifying interests so that options can be developed that meet both party’s interests.

  1. Ask “Why?” – put yourself in their shoes.
  2. Ask “Why Not?” — why doesn’t the other side agree with us?
  3. Realize each side has multiple interests – the physician wants a secure income for his family, he wants time with his family so he does not want to always be on call.
  4. Realize the most powerful interests are basic human needs – security, economic well-being, control over one’s life, a sense of belonging, recognition.
  5. Talk about interests – make your interests come alive for the other side. The hospital representative can talk about ways to include the physician in decision-making at the hospital and about what the hospital needs in terms of income to make a profit to reinvest in its people and physical plant.

Using these techniques, let’s see how the conversation between the physician and the hospital representative is more productive:

Physician: I need you to buy my practice for $X and I will not take weekend call. If you don’t want to buy my practice, my partners and I can take it down the road to hospital Y.

Hospital Representative: I understand you have spent your time and your own income to build such a successful practice. You have been a great partner for us for five years. Can you help me understand how you arrived at the $X figure and talk a little about the call issue?

Physician: We recently bought an MRI and quite a bit of other costly equipment that would be included in the purchase price. I have spoken with some other physician practices and this price seems fair. I just want to be fairly compensated for the value my partners and I have brought to this practice over the past five years. In terms of call, I want time with my family on the weekends. I am afraid that if one of my partners leaves, I will have to take both my call and their call and who knows when a new physician could be recruited. I want control over my life.

Hospital Rep: Would it be alright with you if we had both your accountant and my CFO take a look at the practice financials? There are also some industry standards we could apply to the purchase price. As for call, you make a very good point about how much call would be needed. Of course, my problem is that I need to provide certain coverage or the hospital cannot provide certain services and those patients will go down the road. This is a problem across the country and I know many hospitals have begun to pay very high prices to provide call for certain specialties. I wonder if you would consider being part of our medical staff executive committee as part of a purchase package? This would not guarantee you no call, but it would give you a chance to help make policy about how we move forward. If we can reach agreement on purchasing your practice, it will take both of us to make the best decisions for a successful partnership.

Physician: Yes, I can agree to those next steps. I am starting to feel a level of comfort that I will be treated fairly.

As the two parties talked about their interests by asking questions and realizing that the most powerful interests are basic human needs, they both came closer to the purpose of negotiating — serving their interests and finding an acceptable solution.

Part IV in our series will explore more on this topic – “how to invent options for mutual gain”. We welcome any comments you have about conflict you have experienced in health care and lessons you have learned.

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Holly Hayes is a mediator at Karl Bayer, Dispute Resolution Expert where she focuses on mediation of health care disputes. Holly holds a B.A. from Southern Methodist Universityand a Masters in Health Administration from Duke University. She can be reached at: holly@karlbayer.com.

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