Conflict Assessment – Interests and Positions

I am going to explore a couple of concepts that have been discussed previously on this blog that are important to conflict assessment. Interest is something that I have explored a couple of times. My partner Mukurima provided an excellent introduction to positions just last week. Today we will explore the difference between interests and positions in more detail as an aspect of conflict assessment.

Interests, simply put, represent the resources and relationships that are threatened by a conflict; anything that you stand to lose directly, indirectly, or peripherally. Positions are what the participants in a conflict think they are fighting about. There are times when a conflicting party understands their interests, and their positions are in line with those interests. More often than not, this is not the case.

Interests and Positions: A Basic Example

There is a well tread example of position versus interest concerning the desire for an orange. Two parties go to a store to buy an orange. The store only has one orange and the parties fight for it. There is an alternative to fighting, however. They can discuss what they each want the orange for and discover that one wants a little orange juice while the other wants orange rind. We can assume that each of their needs will be met by a single orange. If they decide to discuss and share, then there is no need for conflict. I think this is a silly example, but I have found that this story is often used to introduce the concept of position versus interest.

Interests and Positions: A Better Example

There are better stories. The story of the Camp David Accords, which Mukurima wrote about last week, is literally the textbook case of position versus interest. President Carter managed a great coup in getting Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to Camp David to begin with. Had those talks failed it would have been attributed to the impossibility of peace between Egypt and Israel; though Carter might have suffered somewhat politically as a result of a failure, he could not have been blamed for the failure. From the start, it was an exercise in futility; except, it wasn’t.

Carter spent the thirteen days at Camp David personally running back and forth between Sadat and Begin, listening and debating and, when necessary, cajoling them into continuing the talks. Carter had staff working around the clock to write and revise new offers for Sadat and Begin to review. These talks almost broke down on multiple occasions. They were held together only by President Carter’s force of will. In the end President Carter succeeded in getting Sadat and Begin to recognize that while their positions—Israel was concerned with security while Egypt wanted to maintain their sovereignty—were keeping them apart, their interests—a safe border for Israel and territorial control for Egypt—could lead them to peace.

Interests and Positions in the Real World

The big problem is that people do not always understand their interests, but they are usually quite adamant about their positions. People do not like to lose power, prestige, or resources. When faced with conflict the typical first response is to focus on what could be lost. This leads to strong emotion. Strong emotion turns process conflict into affective conflict.

I. William Zartman defines mediation as a facilitated form of negotiation. There are times when parties will not talk to each other. These are the times when a neutral third party is required to mediate; that is, to facilitate a negotiation. Exploring and determining position versus interest requires talking to people, in depth.

Though in the end the role of a conflict assessment is to find the information that will bring the parties to the table to negotiate, it is important to remember that there are more pieces to the puzzle. We have talked about identifying the players and analyzing their positions and interest; next week I will explore impediments to negotiation.


Leave a Reply