Conflict Core and Overlay Factors - Part II

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

Spring 2016


This is the second part of a two-part series further explaining the difference between core and overlay conflict factors, which together greatly increase the probablities that a conflict will become intractable.  The first video talked about core issues.  This video describes eleven "overlay" or "complicating factors" that increase the chance of intractability by themselves, plus they obscure the core conflict, which also makes it difficult to deal with. We begin to explain how this way of viewing conflict elements helps to formulate strategies for addressing the conflict--a notion that we will be expanding upon through this seminar series.

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 overlay factors seem true in those cases?

Fundamentals Seminar
Home | Syllabus / Other Posts
This Seminar is part of the...

Find out more...

Referenced Resources

Dean Pruitt, Jeffrey Rubin, and Sung Hee Kim. Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement (3rd Edition). McGraw-Hill Education. 2003.

Full Transcript

Hi, this is Heidi Burgess. Today I want to talk about the overlay factors as a continuation of my discussion of conflict core and overlay. You'll remember that we developed two metaphors to explain the notion of core and overlay. One is a geologic metaphor that there is a small core of the Earth which is very hot, which is similar to the core of the conflict, which can be, at least initially, relatively small but very intense. And lots of layers get overlain over that core that obscure it. 

Now, the way that we recommend dealing with this problem is to, first, start peeling off the overlay factors, which is hard to do if your metaphor is the Earth, easier to visualize if your metaphor is an onion. So somewhere along the line we change metaphors. And you now see that I'm using both of them to consider the outer layers of an onion to be the overlay, the center to be the core. And the key to dealing with intractable conflicts, at least one of the keys, is to peel away the outer overlaying or complicating layers, so that you can get down to and address the core. 

Tuy and I have come up with eleven factors that we call overlays, or complicating factors. They're listed here. I'm going to go through each one of them one at a time and talk about them a little bit. 

The first one is framing. Framing is basically a cognitive shortcut, the way we categorize information and look at it as understood, not understood, good, bad. Some things we like, some things we don't-- things we agree with, things we don't. 

If you look at these three pictures, you might refer to them all as pets. You might refer to them all as mammals. You might make a distinction between the top left and the bottom, as dogs, and the other one is cats. I've often wondered how dogs and cats know that those two are similar and the top right is different. In terms of size, the top two look little, and fuzzy, cute, and friendly. And the bottom one looks hostile, and scary, and angry. But we know the top two aren't both cats!

Now, the bottom one is a pit bull. And I was bitten by a pit bull once as a kid. So I consider pit bulls to be scary and evil, perhaps. And the top two are cute and sweet. Now, that isn't terribly important when it comes to cats and dogs, although people who own pit bulls which have become illegal in certain towns may think it's a big deal. 

But it becomes a particularly big deal when you replace the pictures of animals with the pictures of people. Now, you can frame these two pictures as women or you can focus on the fact that one of them is a pretty, white, and as it happens, American woman. And the other one does look probably to be pretty. And she looks white. But she doesn't look like what many people perceive as American because of the way she's dressed. 

And many people in America, particularly after 9/11, began to frame people who were dressed this way as the enemy. They hate them. They seek revenge against them. They feel anger, and pain, and conflict when they encounter them. And they try to somehow get rid of them, fight against them, frame the relationship with them not as "us," but as "us versus them." 

And when you start framing things that way, it greatly complicates the conflict. Now, there are many other ways that framing can complicate a conflict. And we're going to have a whole other post on framing, but that's a quick introduction. It's the way you look at the world that can either make conflicts easier to resolve or more difficult. 

Framing can lead to misunderstandings. Now, many people subscribe to what is called the conduit metaphor, the notion that when you say something it's just like water going through a pipe. When water goes through a pipe, it goes in one end. It comes out the other end. It comes out the same. 

But language doesn't work that way. You don't put your language in a pipe and have it come out the other end the same --being heard the same way that you said it. Rather, the listener has a set of lenses that interpret what you say, that frame it depending on their preconceived notions of who you are, whether you're trusted or not trusted, whether what you're saying agrees with their beliefs or contradicts their beliefs, whether what you're saying is welcome or not welcome--that will change the message. So the message could get quite distorted, just like a lens can distort light. 

Frames can distort messages so that people don't understand what was intended and respond in inappropriate and often destructive ways. So then they say something back that is, again, possibly misinterpreted, because the original speaker has his or her own lens. And you could end up with very severe misunderstandings. 

And the big X means that the conduit metaphor is by no means accurate, and that conflict communication can be fraught with misunderstandings.

Another overlay factor is procedural problems. All organizations and communities and nation states have set procedures for how they deal with different issues and policies. But when these procedures are seen to be unfair or unevenly applied, this can cause big conflicts. 

Immigration is a good example of this. It's flaring up in the news. Currently in the United States, people believe that the set immigration policy is not fair, and it also is not being applied evenly. Both of these factors greatly complicate the issue of immigration and the ability of politicians and citizens on both sides to effectively deal with that conflict. 

Factual disagreements are another overlay factor. In the current presidential election, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have been earning what the Washington Post calls Pinocchios, which is a measure of how much they're lying. The lies have been flying so fast and frequently that it's really hard to dig underneath them and see what the core differences are between these candidates. You can't dig through the muck to see what they really believe. I happen to think it's easier on one side than the other, but I won't get into the politics here. 

But when you have factual disagreements, it makes it very difficult to even understand the conflict, let alone resolve it. Another great example of this in a different realm is the controversy over climate change. And below, you'll see a picture of Senator James Inhofe who famously, a couple of winters ago, came into the Senate in Washington DC carrying a snowball.  He was trying to use that as evidence that climate change doesn't exist. Because, of course, it is not supposed to snow in Washington DC. So he shouldn't have been able to bring a snowball into the Senate if climate change were real (or so he said).

Well, there's very large scientific consensus now that climate change is real, that it is human caused. And it's starting to cause very significant impacts on both the natural and the human environment. They're getting increasingly hard to deal with. But we can't even begin to address these problems if we can't get over the factual disagreements about whether climate change is real. So factual disagreements are another overlay or complicating factor.

Another very important one is escalation, which I first learned about in depth from Pruitt and Rubin in their book called Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate and Settlement. And I have in the heading here Kim because she was added in as a third author in the second edition. 

The way they conceptualize escalation is it occurs when the tactics that the disputants use go from light to heavy. The issues also go from few to many and from specific to general. The number and expense of resources devoted to the conflict goes from low to high or few to many. And the goals of the disputants go from doing well, to winning, to hurting the other. This is often depicted as a conflict spiral. 

I have this on the next slide, so it's easier to read. This one was put together by an organization called the Peace Revolution. It's very similar to Pruitt and Rubin's image. But in this picture you start with a triggering event. But as the conflict escalates, more issues get added in. The parties start forming alliances to build up their power. Communication starts being distorted like that conduit metaphor image I had before. Positions become increasingly extreme, and the focus goes from simply doing well, to winning, to hurting each other. 

Another image that I like is the one that was put together by the Danish Center for Conflict Resolution that says that parties start with a simple disagreement, where they're saying, "well, we see things differently," to what they call "personification."  "It's your fault." And then the problem expands. This is not the first time you remember when you did such and such and so and so. And dialogue is abandoned, because people figure there's no point. 

And enemy images are developed, a lot like the framing I talked about, and open hostility grows. And people polarize. This is a whole set of complicating factors that make conflicts increasingly difficult to deal with. 

Another complicating factor is geography. One version of this is when you have a buffer state. And the prime example of this is Turkey, which is caught between the cultures of Europe and the cultures of Asia, right north of the Middle East. So it brings together Christian and Muslim culture. It's a hotbed of conflict because there are so many overlapping belief systems, cultures, values, frames, all trying to take precedence, all trying to deal with the other, often in conflicting ways. 

Another version of bad geography is bad neighborhoods, which is really typified by the Middle East. It's really hard to stay peaceful and collaborative in the Middle East with all of the chaos going on all around. This too is a complicating factor. 

So too is bad past treatment and the collective memories of that treatment. The top left picture is a picture of slaves in the United States and to the right of Indian wars. The Holocaust Museum represents, of course, the horrific treatment of Jews in World War II. And lastly, the treatment of Jews and Palestinians that goes on to this day in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And past treatments, and the collective memories of those treatments, and the enemy images that are formed with those treatments, the desire for revenge that comes out of those treatments, tends to live on from one generation, to the next generation, to the next generation, and makes conflicts extremely intractable. 

Now, if we go back to that list that I had the beginning of the slide show, there's a whole bunch of other factors, all of which can be represented by this hypothetical flag that is both Palestine and Israel, not only past memories, but fears of the future. Both sides fear what will happen if the other side wins.

Bad leaders are another complicating factor. Many people on both sides agree that Yasser Arafat was a bad leader because he did not represent the Palestinians well, and he certainly was no friend of Israel. Many people think that Netanyahu's picture should also be up there, but many others don't. So I decided not to put it in. Yasser Arafat's picture actually is in there because we came up with the term "into the sea" framing because of him. He was the first person that I know of who popularized the notion that he wanted to drive Israel into the sea.  And the notion is the only way to resolve or deal with conflict is to completely eliminate your enemy, either kill them or at least chase them away. Get them out of your area, out of your life. If you frame conflicts this way, it's a recipe for intractability. 

The last two conflict overlays are the siege mentality and the victim mentality, both of which are also seen in this conflict. Siege mentality is the notion that everybody in the world is against you, and you have to fight for your life against overwhelming odds. And the victim mentality is that you're the victim, and the other side is totally at fault. 

Both sides in this conflict tend to see things that way. Both sides tend to fall victim to the siege mentality. All of these things are complicating factors that overlay the core issues and make this conflict particularly difficult to deal with, 

So to review, when the core conflicts involve rights, and fundamental human needs, and deep-seated value or moral differences, and high stakes, and identity and status issues, all of those factors, increase the chances for intractability. And you will note all of those factors are at play at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And if that weren't bad enough, then you have all of the overlay factors which lay over the core, obscure it, and make it harder to deal with. 

Now, this is a slide that we developed long ago that shows the difference between unlimited and limited conflict overlays. The top circle shows unlimited conflict overlays, where you have lots of things that are laying over the core that are making it very difficult to see and impossible to reach. If you manage to strip away, or shrink, or limit those complicating or overlaying factors, then it becomes much easier to at least see the core and focus on ways of dealing with it. 

Does that make intractable conflicts tractable? No, they still have these non-negotiable issues. But at least you can see them, and at least you can start addressing ways of dealing with them. But as long as the overlay factors remain big, you can't do that. So we're going to be dealing a lot more with how to shrink each of these different kinds of overlay factors. And then how to address each of these core factors in the action mechanisms part of the seminar. 

Photo Credits:

Slie 3: Onion:; attribution: By Amada44 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 5: Dog: Attribution: Pixabay. CC0 Public Domain. No attribution required. Cat: Attribution: Pixabay. CC0 Public Domain. No attribution required. Pit bull:  source: CC0 Public Domain. No attribution required.  

Slide 6: White woman: Source:; Permission: Pixabay: CC0 Public Domain. Muslim woman: Pixabay: CC0 Public Domain. Revenge: source:  CC0 Public domain.

Slide 7, 8 and 9: Water pipe:  Attribution: wfmillar [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.  Speaker:  Attribution: By Lucian Dinu [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.  Hear: source:  Attribution: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Slide 10: Shipping procedures: source:  Attribution: By Welcomeliberia (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia . Commons. Immigration protest: by Rasande Tyskar.

Slide 11: Trump:,_2015_(cropped).jpg. By Michael Vadon: CC BY-SA 2.0.  Clinton: State Department Photo: Public Domain.    Inhoff

Slide 12 and 13: Conflict spiral:by Peace Revolutionl.​

Slide 14: 7 Steps of conflict escalation: The Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution.

Slide 15: Map Source:; Permission/Attribution: By unknown cartographer (CIA, The World Factbook, 2004.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 16: Source:; Permission/attribution: By Cacahuate, amendments and translations by Globe-trotter and Joelf (Own work based on the blank world map) [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 17: US Slavery: attribution: Mathew B. Brady - Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Public Domain.  Slaughter of Native Americans:,_Charles_Marion_Russell_1912.jpg. Attribution: Public Domain. Holocaust Museum:  Attribution: Taken by Sbrools. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License. Blended Israeli/Palestinian Flag: Created by Yellowblood.  Public Domain.

Slide 18:  Blended Israeli/Palestinian Flag: Created by Yellowblood.  Public Domain. Arafat: By Tibor Végh (Arafat.jpg) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons