Conflict Resolution

by Aled Davies

Why conflicts are so difficult to resolve

There are two main reasons why conflict is difficult to resolve:

  1. Emotions
  2. Positions and interests.


When emotions such as anger, frustration and resentment are felt, it’s often difficult for people to think and behave rationally. Their ability to step into the other party’s shoes and think compassionately about the other side of the conflict is severely impaired.

Why do emotions play such a big part?

Our behaviour is a manifestation of our emotions: we feel a certain emotion that causes us to behave in a certain way. Furthermore, our emotions manifest from needs and interests of ours being met or, in most conflict cases, not being met. Imagine an iceberg, where 20 per cent of the iceberg is above the waterline and visible, while the other 80 per cent is below the water line and obscured from view. Imagine that the 20 per cent that’s visible represents our behaviour: we can see and hear it.

Just below the surface sit our emotions – we can neither see nor hear them, but we can often guess how we and others are feeling by observing behaviour. For example, if someone is smiling, we can guess they’re happy; if someone is shouting and waving their fist, we can assume that they might be angry, and so on.

But if we go deeper down the iceberg we get to a place that represents the things that are most important to us: our needs and our interests. These are the very things that drive our emotions and in turn cause us to act and react the way we do in conflict.

Physical and emotional needs

You’re no doubt familiar with your primary physical needs for food, water and air. So imagine one of these needs not being met. Let’s take food: how would you feel? Hungry? How would you know this? Well, you might begin by noticing a rumbling sensation in your stomach; maybe you would even feel light-headed. As you noticed these feelings, you might sense you were hungry and therefore reach for a sandwich to meet your need. Our social and emotional needs work in exactly the same way; unfortunately, we are not as tuned in to them as we are to our physical needs and we therefore often fail to behave or act in harmony with our needs.


During a team meeting, Kath made a number of suggestions that weren’t acknowledged by Jo, the team leader. Reluctantly, Kath made one final suggestion, to which Jo replied ‘Don’t be so stupid, we can’t possibly do that! What planet are you on?’

Imagine being a silent observer in that meeting; how might Kath be feeling now? Hurt, embarrassed, angry perhaps? Kath wants and expects to be treated with respect and dignity – those are her emotional needs, but in this example her needs weren’t met.

Examples of emotional and social needs

  • Autonomy
  • Integrity
  • Acceptance
  • Connection
  • Emotional safety
  • Respect
  • Understanding
  • Support
  • Fun
  • Community
  • Dignity
  • Acknowledgment.

To understand more about our emotions and needs and how best to get them met, see the topic on Non-violent Communication.

Positions and interests

Conflicts are also difficult to resolve because people tend to get caught up in their positions. They focus their energy on solutions they think will resolve the situation, instead of focusing on what’s important: namely, their interests.

The difference between positions and interests

The difference between positions and interests is significant. A position represents the parties’ perception of the solutions that will meet their needs. An interest, on the other hand, represents their underlying concerns. Interests lie at the bottom of the iceberg and positions are above the surface.

So in the example above, Kath leaves the meeting furious at being spoken to in that way, especially in front of the other members of the team. Enough is enough; this is the final straw and is just one of many incidents that have angered Kath. Kath goes to HR and makes her feelings known.

Kath says that ‘Jo is nothing but an arrogant pig and has had it in for me from the start. She has no right speaking to me that way – I want her sacked!’ This is Kath’s position: she thinks that sacking Jo will be the best solution and one that will meet her need. Kath’s interest, however, is to be treated fairly and with dignity and respect – needs which are not currently being met.

Reconciling interests rather than positions is effective for two very good reasons: for every interest, there are often many and varied solutions to satisfy that interest. In addition, by searching underneath positions, we are able to find interests that are similar or common to both parties. If we focus on positions, on the other hand, there can only be one winner and one loser.

How to move someone from an entrenched position

The most effective way to uncover someone’s interests, even your own, is by asking questions that are probing while also expressing a degree of empathy.

Positional statements tend to be blame orientated and focused on what the other party did or should do. So whenever you hear such statements, try exploring the person’s underlying concerns by asking some of these questions:

  • What’s important to you about...?
  • You sound concerned about... Tell me more...
  • How would that improve the situation...?
  • What would that do for you...?
  • What will be different when...?