Online Toolkit

Part 4 - Key Concepts, Models, and Tools

Conflict Analysis

Those who find themselves in a conflict find that it is helpful to analyse the conflict, in order to gain a better understanding of the dynamics, relationships and issues that make up the situation. Knowing the different aspects of a conflict situation can assist us in carrying out actions and strategies in a more constructive manner.

A practical process of examining and understanding the reality of a conflict.To understand the background and history of the situation as well as its current events.
A way to find out what is occurring within a conflict.To identify all the relevant problems and groups involved, not only the main or obvious ones.
A way to identify different components and factors in the conflict.To identify factors and trends that underpin conflict.
To understand the perspectives of all the groups and to know more about how they relate to each other.
A way to find solutions to the situation.To learn from failures as well as successes.
A way to assess and plan action.To predict the future development and escalations of the process.

Conflict analysis is not a one-time exercise, with rigid tools, or a one-size-fits-all process. It is an on-going process, and should be permanently adapted to the ever changing circumstances that are being analysed.

Conflict analysis applies to all levels of conflict, from interpersonal through to international, and all stages of conflict, escalation and decline.

Tools for Conflict Analysis

The purpose of conflict analysis is to understand a conflict situation; figure out what can be done; uncover the appropriate timing; and learn how to prevent it from happening again. It is important to be impartial and unbiased.

To do this, there are different tools for analysing a conflict. Some are familiar techniques that we use in our daily lives, while others may present a completely unexpected way of looking at a conflict. All of these tools have been tested in conflict circumstances, and have been adapted to a variety of contexts. The tools can be used on their own or in different combinations, but they are most effective when used to compliment one another.

MODELSShort Description
The IcebergTo analyse the invisible aspects of a conflict - and its relationship with the visible aspects.
More information >
Conflict TreeTo distinguish between the core problem, causes, and effects of a conflict.
More information >
The Onion (or The Donut)To differentiate and to explain each conflict actor's positions, interests and needs; how they differ and are perceived by those engaged in the conflict.
More information >
Conflict TriangleTo analyse the basic elements of a conflict (attitudes, behaviour, and context) for each of the major parties involved, and how they influence and are influenced by each other.
More information >
Conflict TimelineTo review and sort out key historical events in chronological order, and to identify different phases/stages in a conflict.
Conflict Mapping/TrackingTo track the key actors involved and their relationships in a particular time.
The Pyramids To allocate key factors into different levels (top, middle, and grass-roots) according to their level of influence and activity in the conflict.
The PillarsTo identify the key issues and factors causing a conflict situation. To sort out which of these issues should be addressed first.

For the purpose of this toolkit, we will concentrate on the first 4 conflict analysis tools. We believe that these tools are the more relevant ones that will help address the issues and problems related to youth work.

The Iceberg

A graphic tool which help us look at conflict in the form of an iceberg – where behaviours can be seen above the water (visible), while the attitudes and contradictions lay deep underneath.

In certain types of conflict situations, the behaviours of the people in conflicting parties are manifested through actions (such as killing, hitting, or shouting). What we do not see are the attitudes and feelings behind these actions (feelings of hurt, powerlessness, or insecurity), as well as the context (for example, parties may be experiencing gender inequality or racial discrimination). Being aware of the 'invisible' aspects of a conflict will help us better understand why the conflicting parties have such behaviours, allowing us to find alternative ways to find a resolution.

When to use it?
The iceberg tool can be used in analysing conflicts where elements of behaviour are obvious. It can be used in conflicts that revolve around visible actions / behaviours of the conflicting parties. For example, a young boy discriminates against his disabled classmate by not allowing him/her to join them in the games during break. In this conflict, we only see the behaviour of the boy towards the disabled classmate. Using the iceberg model, we can dig deeper and find the attitude, context or contradiction behind the conflict.

The Conflict Tree

A graphic tool, which helps us to identify and sort key conflict issues using the image of a tree. Based on the classical "problem tree" method, it was adapted to be used in conflict analysis in a way that will allow us to separate key conflict issues into three different categories:

  • CAUSES: Including emotions and ultimate causes.
  • EFFECTS: They should be the end result of a conflict; from the slightest (a broken leg or hurt feelings) to more extreme results (loss of friendship, death, or war) also including the effects of the conflict being resolved.

It is an exercise to do collectively rather than individually, as it will enable us to discuss questions such as:
  • What is the core problem?
  • What are the root causes?
  • What are the effects that have resulted from that problem?

When using this form of analysis, you may find that a recurring issue can be identified as both a cause and an effect of a particular conflict. An example of this is the scarcity of natural resources, which can be a source of conflict, but also an effect of prolonged violence.

The conflict tree can also illustrate the cycle of violence, and the ways that communities can become trapped by the causes and effects in a perpetual cycle of conflict.

When to use it?
The conflict tree is often used as an entry point for joint analysis and planning. It is a way to get a basic understanding of the nature of the conflict, and also as a tool to identify the core problem and to find out the right strategy to address it.

The central idea is to ensure that the core problem is correctly identified, as distinguished from the effects of a problem. It can also be useful to relate causes and effects to each other, and to the focus of your organisation. This way, it will be easier for your organisation to decide which conflict issues you should try to address first.[94]

The Onion (or Donut)

The onion model is based upon the idea that the layers of a conflict are much like that of an onion: there are many dynamics to be considered, but only those on the surface are visible, until we start to peel of the layers to see what lies at the core. It allows a better understanding of the conflicting parties' positions, and their real interests and needs. It helps us to distinguish between what the different parties say they want, and what they really want and need.

In peaceful situations people relate and act on the basis of their actual needs. In conflict situations, the lack of access to basic needs, together with the mistrust that often characterises relationships in conflict, alters the basis on which people relate to one another.

It is important to be aware about the distinction between positions and interests:
• Positions are what people say they want in a conflict.
• Interests refer to what people really want, and what motivates them.

The outer layer of the onion represents the positions we allow everyone to see and hear (what we say we want). Underlying these are our interests (what we want), which represent what we wish to achieve in a conflict situation. At the core of the onion are our needs (what we must have), which must be fulfilled in order for the conflicting parties to be truly satisfied with the outcome. While interests can often be negotiated, needs are non-negotiable. Although it may be difficult to set other dynamics aside, it is critical that conflicting parties understand their own and each other's core needs, so that constructive and satisfying outcomes can be achieved.

When analysing interests we should bear in mind that:
  • All parties have interests and needs that are important and valid to them.
  • A solution to the problem should meet the maximum number of interests of the maximum number of parties possible.
  • There is always more than one acceptable solution to a problem.
  • Any conflict involves compatible interests, as well as conflicting ones

When to use it?
The Onion model can be used as part of an analysis to understand the dynamics of a conflict situation, but also in preparation for facilitating dialogue between groups in a conflict, or as part of a negotiation or mediation process itself – even during the post-conflict reconstruction process.

It can be helpful for those engaged in dialogue, as in order to have a successful negotiation, it is essential to make sure that the needs of each party are fully understood. It is also useful before entering into a negotiation, as a means to better understand the other(s) interests, positions and needs, but also to clarify our own ones and keep them in mind throughout the process. The idea is to carry out the onion analysis for each of the parties involved, including your own.

The Onion model can also bring insight into prolonged conflicts; even raising new hopes for them, as these kinds of conflicts are often seen to result from hiding or distorting actual needs, making the conflict intractable. These needs can be identified by further peeling off the layers of conflict!

Conflict Triangle (Attitudes, Behaviours, Context)

It analyses the basic elements of a conflict situation by placing them in a triangular relationship, where each element influences and is influenced by the others. It is a simplified model of Johan Galtung's thinking on the relationship between conflict, violence and peace – helping us analyse factors related to attitude, behaviour and context for each of the major parties involved.

According to Galtung, conflicts have three structural components, intimately related to each other in complex ways. These components are:

  1. The attitudes and perceptions held by conflicting parties.
  2. The behaviour of those involved in the conflict.
  3. The conflict situation, or context.

A conflict, therefore, can be viewed as a triangle with attitudes (A), behaviour (B) and context (C), at its vertices.

Attitudes refer to the psychological states of people involved in a conflict situation. They include the parties' perceptions and misperceptions of each other and of themselves, which are more likely to be negative, as opposing parties tend to develop negative stereotypes of the others. They include feelings and beliefs, and are often influenced by emotions such as fear, distrust, apathy, anger or hatred. Sometimes, attitudes can be regarded as the source of the conflict, or as an exacerbating factor for both conflict situations and conflict behaviour. Fear, prejudice, or assumption can bring about violence or any other conflict behaviour as a reaction.

Behaviours refer to the actual behaviour of the opposing parties resulting from their (real or perceived) mutually incompatible goals, and from their attempts to achieve those goals. They are the actions undertaken by one party aimed at affecting the opposing party, with the intention of making that opponent abandon or modify their goals.[95] This could come in two primary forms: the violent, such as physical damage, threats, coercion and destruction; or the non-violent, such as discussion or persuasion.

Context refers to the underlying conflict situation, including the real or perceived "incompatibility of goals" between the conflicting sides. This may come from the "contradiction" defined by the parties, their interests, or directly from the structure of the society itself, - political, economic or societal mechanisms, processes and institutions. Galtung's original Conflict Triangle can be modified into different versions where Contradictions or Structure substitute Context, according to a specific situation.

When to use it?
  • Early in the process, to gain greater insights into what motivates the different parties.
  • Later, to identify what factors might be addressed by an intervention.
  • At any time, to reveal how a change in one aspect might affect another.
The Conflict Triangle can be used as a tool to analyse a conflict as a dynamic process in which structures/context, attitudes and behaviour constantly change and influence each other. Furthermore, since the Conflict Triangle focuses on each party's perceptions separately, it is a highly recommended tool to analyse multiparty conflicts.