Skip to content

Positions, Interests and Needs in Conflict Resolution

The positions and interests framework is a simple idea in conflict resolution. Once we understand and clarify the position and interest of people in conflict it’s usually a stepping stone towards relational reconciliation.

What is the difference between positions and interests?

Conflict usually starts with a disagreement with another person’s position.  But, we need to learn the deeper issues that motivate their position. When people’s positions are in conflict, it often fuels arguments and blocks the path of reconciliation and collaboration.

We can overcome this.

Every person approaches a problem with a position. That position is their idea of the best solution to the problem. This is how humans think, it’s normal. But having different conflicting positions can stop people from working together towards a common goal or interest.

A Conflict of Positions and Interests

I have two friends conflicted about the best way to reduce drug use and violence in the Philippines. The violence of the recent War on Drugs in the Philippines is the main problem. The President promotes killing as his tactic and their positions about killing have divided them.

One friend believes that killing drug users and dealers is the best way to bring justice and make the streets safer, especially for those who suffer from violent drug-addicted relatives. He says this might be a necessary evil today for a brighter tomorrow.

The other friend believes that the Philippines must challenge drug users towards change. She believes in locking up criminals, but leading them on a restorative path. At the same time, she believes we must invest in reforming the justice system and that killing is always wrong and against Jesus’ way.

One friend sees the other as soft on killing and the other believes the friend is promoting violence. In reality, this is not a discussion with only two positions: pro-killing vs. anti-killing; many positions exist beyond these two extremes.

How does recognizing positions and interests help?

a diagram showing 2 people fighting about their position but agreeing on their interests
Their positions are different, but if they listen to each other, they will discover they have overlapping interests and needs.

Diagram 1

Diagram 1 illustrates conflicted positions and common interests.

  • Both parties are shouting at one another from their position at the top of the mountain.

  • They don’t realize that below their initial positions, which are clearly seen, they have shared interests and common needs (the darkly shaded area).

  • Sometimes these common interests are even complementary.

  • The foundation of these deeper interests is common human needs. Healthy relationships, food, water and security are universal needs. Achieving these together are foundational places to start a reconciliation process.

How does this help in my friend’s conflict?

One friend sees killing as always wrong, the other sees it as a necessary tool. How can my friends move forward when they disagree? 

The path to a solution comes from their common interest. They both hope for the eradication of illegal drug dealing in the Philippines. This interest is the foundation that will motivate my conflicted friends to creatively brainstorm paths to their common goal despite their initial conflict.

A constructive dialogue will be born in knowing that they can trust the other person’s motivation to end the trafficking of illegal drugs.

I pray that these friends can move forward together and act toward achieving their common interests. By collaborating, they will multiply their capacity to achieve their goals together.

By achieving their goals they will also be achieving the church’s goals for the world to see the love and justice (love in the public sphere) of God in every neighbourhood in ways that bring healing and hope to every person.

Reflect back on the example. Can you see how these principles about positions and interests also apply to group and international conflicts?

Leave me a story in the comments about your related experience. Maybe I can use it in a future example.

Thanks, Darnell

Update (Feb 22, 2017): One person from our peacebuilding community suggested a way to get past the deadlock that can stall a conflict: “One of the techniques (not at all mine originally) is to have each party argue the “other” position, in order to clarify, hear and understand the differences between them. Very effective in a majority of cases.”

If anyone tries this I’d love to hear some specific stories about how it works.