Conflict Core and Overlay Factors - Part I

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

Spring 2016




This video reviews the notion discussed earlier (in What Makes Conflicts Intractable?) of core and overlay factors, and then describes the core factors in more detail than before.  We focus here, particularly, why these factors are so problematic, and why they tend to cause intractability. 

Things to Think About

1. Think of a conflict that you would consider "intractable."  How many of these core factors are present?  Compare that to a dispute you have had or know about that was resolved fairly quickly or easily.  How many of these core factors were present in that case?  Does our assertion about the importance of intractablility to core factors seem true in those cases?

Referenced Resources

  • Peter Coleman.  The Five Percent. Public Affairs 2011.
  • Roger Fisher and William Ury (and for the second edition, Bruce Patton), Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In.   Penguin Books; Revised edition (December 1, 1991).

Full Transcript

Hi, this is Heidi Burgess. And today, I want to talk in somewhat more detail about conflict core and overlay factors. I talked about this idea originally in one of the very introductory posts. And there I started the video by talking about Peter Coleman and his book The Five Percent

In the first part of The Five Percent, Coleman comes up with what he calls the "57 essences of intractable conflict." He developed these by spending two years reading about intractable conflict in social psychology, international relations, and conflict resolution literature and found that he could identify 57 different factors that different scholars identified as being the core, or essence, of the problem. 

At the same time that he was doing that, Guy and I were studying the conflicts ourselves, rather than the literature. And we came up with a much smaller list, but we divided our list into two different kinds of factors. We came up with the name of "Core and Overlay," because Guy was thinking of a metaphor of geology, where you have the core of the Earth, which is relatively small, very deep, very hot, which is also 

And then both in terms of geology and in terms of conflict, you get all sorts of stuff piled over the core that obscures it. You can't see it. It's buried underneath all sorts of sediment, or what we call, in conflict terms, overlay--or later we called them--complicating factors. (We came up with the term "complicating factors" when we started to teach seminars to a lot of students for whom English was not their native language, and translating the word "overlay" was difficult. So we changed it into "complicating factors," which, indeed, is what the overlay factors do.) But when you read our stuff and see either of those terms, you should realize they refer to the same thing. 

What we suggested that you need to do to try to deal effectively with intractable conflicts is you need to peel away the overlay. And that meant that it was useful to switch metaphors and start thinking of conflicts in terms of an onion, because it's much easier to visualize peeling away the layers of an onion to get to that center core than it is peeling away the layers of Earth. So that's another metaphor that works for the core and overlay concepts.

Now, instead of having 57 essences, we have about seven or eight factors that we consider to contribute to the core of intractable conflicts. And these are interests, needs, rights, values, stakes-- particularly high stakes-- and identity issues-- including pecking order issues, or power, respect, oppression, inequality, and inequity. Let me talk about each of these in turn. 

Bill Ury and Roger Fisher in Getting to Yes came up with the distinction-- or I guess I should say they popularized the distinction-- between interests and positions. It's a distinction that others had made before, but they made it well-known. Interests are the desires or goals, the things that you really want out of a conflict, as opposed to positions, which are much simpler statements about the policies that one favors or opposes. So positions seem to be simple-- I want this, I want that, I favor this, I favor that-- where interests are more nuanced. 

The reason that I have a picture of an orange and half  a orange here is because of a story that Fisher and Ury put in their book and many people have repeated since about two children who were fighting over an orange. They were bickering, and the mom got frustrated. So she cut the orange in half, and she gave one half to each child, because the children's positions were, "I want the orange!" And the only way to accommodate them both fairly was to split it in half. 

But if she had asked the children why they wanted the orange, she might have found out that one of them wanted the pulp to eat and the other one wanted the rind to bake with. And if she would have realized that, she could have given each what they wanted entirely. There was no need to cut the orange in half. All she needed to do was peel it and give each child 100% of what they wanted. 

So that's why it's important to look beyond the simple positions, which tend to be non-negotiable, to figure out what the interests are, because they may, indeed, be negotiable. And if they are, then you may not actually have an intractable conflict, but rather that you have one that can be negotiated if you figure out what the underlying interests are. 

Now, there are another kind of interests which are much more fundamental. And those are what John Burton and other human-needs scholars refer to as "fundamental human needs". Needs are related to interests. They're the important things that you really want. But what's different about needs is that they cannot be compromised. They're non-negotiable. And the needs that are most often discussed in terms of conflict and conflict resolution are identity, security, and recognition. 

People don't negotiate who they are. They don't negotiate whether or not they feel secure. They don't negotiate whether they're going to be recognized as a legitimate, respected, honored person. Those are fundamental needs that are non-negotiable. So if there are needs that are not being met in a conflict, that's much harder to deal with than interests that aren't being met. And they're one of many things that tend to make conflicts intractable. 

In addition to needs are rights, which are independent standards of fairness that are either socially recognized or formally established at law or in a contract. There's the fundamental human rights that are included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that include such things as life, liberty, security, and a whole bunch of rights that I have all put together under the notion of rule of law, the notion that there should be laws and that everybody should be treated fairly under those laws. 

Also, the United States has the Bill of Rights that includes most of what's in the fundamental, universal human rights but also has things such as freedom of religion. and the right to bear arms, of course, is the one that's majorly contested now with the gun controversy in the United States. And states' rights, the notion that, if things aren't specifically mentioned in the Constitution as being a federal right, then the issue is deferred to the states for them to set the rights and the laws. 

Just like needs, rights are non-negotiable. If people believe they have those rights, they will fight for them, either through legal mechanisms or, if legal mechanisms don't work, extralegal mechanisms, including, at times, violence. 

Also non-negotiable are values, which are fundamental beliefs about what is right and wrong, good and bad. On important issues, people don't negotiate these either. They stick to their rights.. They stick to their values, and they try to convince other people to follow their values. And if they can't do that, they fight very hard so they at least are allowed to follow their own values. 

That's why gay marriage is still a controversy in this country, although it's changing, in my mind, rather surprisingly quickly. But there are still some people who think it's fundamentally wrong. And they were quite distressed when laws in the country went against them.  And they're still trying very hard not to have to follow those laws themselves. 

Abortion is another issue in the United States, where we have very fundamental values. And people are fighting very hard to try to get their beliefs upheld, regardless of whether they're currently supported by the legal structure or not. Needs, values, and rights tend to be non-negotiable. So if you have conflicts that involve these factors, it tends to increase the chance that the conflict's going to become intractable. 

Another thing that contributes to intractability are the stakes. If they're very high, if they're life or death or millions of dollars that are on the line, people are going to fight much harder. And they're going to be much less likely to compromise. If it's not a big deal, if you go, "ehh, I don't care," then it's not going to be an intractable conflict. You can resolve it pretty quickly. 

And then there's identity conflicts. And as I think I said before, identities-- our sense of who we are, where we belong, is also not negotiable. Guy used to refer to one aspect of identity conflicts as "pecking order conflicts." I prefer the term "status conflicts." 

But whichever you call it, it's the notion that most people want to be on the top of the pecking order or the status hierarchy, and they don't like being at the bottom. That's what these birds are fighting over. That's what people fight over. Who's on top? Who's subservient? Who has the most power? Who has the better jobs? Who has the most money? Who has the most voice? And who doesn't? These also aren't negotiated. 

This is an interesting chart that was put together in a study that was done by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely-- I'm not sure I'm pronouncing his name right-- that looked at images of oppression and inequality in the United States. 

They asked people to estimate the relative percent of income that the top 20%, bottom 20%, and the middle quintiles had. And you'll see the estimates. They were just asking random people on the Internet from around the country. 

And on average, people estimated that the top 20% had about 65 or-- this looks like about 62% --of the wealth. And the bottom 20% had about 5% of the wealth. The top bar's the actual distribution. The top 20% have 80% of the wealth in this country. The bottom 20% don't even get on the chart. 

When they asked them what the ideal distribution was, they thought the top 20% should have a little over 30% of the wealth and the bottom 20% should have a little over 10%. So their estimates were far from true. Their ideal was even farther from true, and the actual was way more out of whack than people tend to think. 

This is becoming a big issue in the 2016 election. We didn't used to think that America was a land of oppression and inequality. More and more people are now realizing that it is. And this is a fundamental core issue that tends to lead to conflict intractability. Now, this is the end of this video. And I hope you'll continue on to the follow-on, where I'm going to talk about the overlay factors and how these two concepts fit together. 

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