Understanding conflict

Understanding what’s really important to both you and the other party in a conflict is a great starting point to understand what the conflict is really about, and can help you think about potential solutions.

Getting to needs

An iceberg provides a useful analogy for understanding conflict. Only a tenth of an iceberg is visible above water, while nine-tenths are below the surface. In terms of conflict, our ‘position’ is the visible element.

Our position is our initial response or solution to the conflict. For example, there may be a conflict between two people in a group. One person, let’s call them Lindsay, feels frustrated at the amount of air-time taken up by another member of the group, let’s call them Jon. Lindsay’s position could be an initial reaction, like ‘you talk too much’ or a solution based on this initial reaction, like ‘you should talk less in meetings.’

Immediately beneath the surface lie our interests. It might be what’s important to us in this particular situation, or our concerns or fears about the issue.

In this example, Lindsay’s interests are that she wants more space to share her own ideas, and that she is concerned that other people might leave the group if Jon continues to speak more than others.

Dig deeper and you’ll discover the underlying needs. In this guide when we refer to needs we mean those universal needs, the needs that we all have, for example respect, belonging, to be understood. When our needs are met, we are well and contented.

In our example, Lindsay’s needs might be to be valued for what she brings to the group, and for equality.

So how about Jon? Jon founded the group and is very knowledgeable about the campaign. His position is “If I didn’t put so much into this group, it wouldn’t exist”. His interests are to stay active in the campaign, and he’s concerned people will leave the group if it hasn’t got a clear direction. His needs are to be effective in his work, and for his efforts to be acknowledged.

Go underwater to look for solutions

This exacerbates conflict, and makes it harder to resolve. Solutions seem to flow much more easily when we acknowledge to ourselves and each other what our interests and needs are. Even if the needs don’t overlap in this particular conflict, we all experience these needs at some point in our lives, so knowing each others’ needs can help us connect with each other. So often, people stay at the position level when looking for solutions. We can become fixated on our position, which can lead to a break down in communication and understanding.

In our example, Lindsay needs to be valued and she has a need for equality. To meet her need for equality, she could ask that the group improve their use of consensus decision making. She might also ask if Jon is willing to speak less in meetings, in order to give others a chance to speak. Jon might ask if the group is willing to develop a campaign strategy. This would meet his need to be effective. It can be useful to try understanding the perspective of the other person before suggesting solutions.

Lindsay and Jon have a shared interest in helping the group thrive, and a shared need for being valued. Awareness of this common ground can help them to understand each other and find a solution that works for them both.

Try this:

  1. Think of a conflict you are having or have had in the past.
  2. Draw two overlapping triangles, as in the diagram on page 13. If there are more parties, draw more triangles.
  3. Identify your own positions, interests and needs, and those of the other person. Can you find any needs that overlap? Even if you are guessing at the other person’s needs, does it help you feel more empathy towards them?
  4. Now you have more of a sense of these needs, do you have any ideas for moving forward that you haven’t yet tried?