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Conflict Series: Analyzing Conflict

Author: Cassie Myers

Issue II of the Conflict Series 

Conflicts are complex, they are full of meaning, intentions and unique experiences. In the height of a conflict, the people involved and what resolution looks like can get further away from us. Our wants and emotions can exist alongside practical tools that enable us to move towards addressing conflict. 

In this second article in our conflict series, we will explore two tools that readers can use to better understand conflict. To better understand the tools introduced, we will explore them alongside the example below. 


Trina is a program manager; over the last few weeks, Trina has felt an awkwardness with her assistant, Jakob. This awkwardness began when Trina felt that Jakob’s work had been sloppy; they had been coming to work late and were generally disengaged from their role. From the time this behavior started, Trina asked Jakob twice if they needed support and offered to help them. Each time, Jakob apologized and said it was fine. One of Jakob’s core tasks is to create a report on revenue for the week. This week, when Trina went to look for it, she realized the report had the data from the previous week. Frustrated, Trina approached Jakob, asked what happened and calmly highlighted the behavior as unacceptable. Jakob dismissed Trina and said, “It’s no big deal, you need to relax,” to which Trina responded, “This is your final official warning.” Following the conversation, Trina overheard Jakob complaining about her to his coworkers. 

Conflict Wheel

The conflict wheel can be understood as a central tool that organizes the other tools (Conflict Analysis Framework). The conflict wheel organizes six important sections of conflict analysis: actors/relations, issues, dynamics, context/structures, causations and options/strategies which can be analyzed further (Conflict Analysis Framework).

Dimensions of Conflict:

  1. Actors/Relations: the people, organizations or nations involved in a conflict. The actors that are directly involved in the conflict are called “conflict parties.” If they become involved later they are called “third parties.” Stakeholders are those who have an interest in the conflict or the outcome but are not directly involved. In our example, Jakob and Trina would be the conflict parties. Those who work with Jakob and Trina, as well as their employer, could be stakeholders. 
  2. Issues: what people discuss or disagree over. In our example, the issues might include Jakobs work level or Trina’s management style. 
  3. Dynamics: the intensity of the interaction and the energy that transforms the people involved. In our example, the dynamics could be influenced by Jakob bringing others into the conflict. 
  4. Context/Structures: factors outside of the conflict system that one is witnessing. In our example, this might be the organizational context, structures and limitations. 
  5. Causation: the causes of the conflict, which are never limited to one, but are multi-causal. When we think of causes, it is important that we distinguish between causes and influences. In the case of Trina and Jakob, a cause could be the process the two have for working together or a conversation that lead to the conflict. 
  6. Options and Strategies: ways the conflict might be dealt with.  

In this article, we are primarily focussed on dimensions #1-#4. Sections #5 and #6, which will look at approaching and dealing with a conflict, will be explored later on in this confict series.

Stakeholder Analysis 

Understanding the causes, core problems and effects of a conflict can help us realize the interests of others in a conflict, connect to our own feelings and prepare to approach the conflict. The Actor Analysis Tool helps us dive deeper into the people involved in a conflict. This tool is usually used in sections #1 and #2 of the conflict wheel (Conflict Analysis Framework). 

The actor analysis is broken down into positions, interests and needs. Positions are the stated desires of a person or group (Conflict Analysis Field Guide). In the case of our example, this includes Trina saying that she needs Jakob to do his job accurately. For Jakob, if we are focusing on what has been stated, this might be for Trina to have a bit more flexibility. 

Interests are the preferred way to get someone’s needs met, or concerns and fears that drive someone’s position (Conflict Analysis Field Guide). Trina might have an interest in keeping her performance high and a fear of losing her job. Jakob might also have a fear of losing his job and an interest in having a more relaxed work environment. 

Needs are the basic human needs that are required to live and thrive. These needs can be physical, social and cultural (Conflict Analysis Field Guide). Trina and Jakob might be concerned with the well-being of their families or their social status which is influenced by their position in the organization. The two might have cultural or social needs that are unknown to us that are unmet due to job responsibilities, context or external factors. 

Two pyramid diagrams side by side with the bottom corners overlapping like a venn diagram. The pyramid is labelled top to bottom, "positions, interests, needs"
Source: Floyer Acland, 1995: 50 

An actor analysis might be used preliminarily before parties are engaged in discussion, mediation or negotiation to determine how to best approach a conflict (Conflict Analysis Framework. We can use the actor analysis diagram (shown above) to understand the positions, interests, needs and power among the parties. While the same tool is used to understand different stakeholders, it is critical that we remember that no two stakeholders are the same, and depending on one’s identity they can be afforded different levels of power that enable them to have certain interests and positions. The actor analysis might be adapted to add a layer to the means of influence or power an actor might have, the issues they are concerned with and their willingness to reach a resolution (Conflict Analysis Framework). 

Conflict Dynamics and Context 

Conflict does not exist on an island, but it is an occurrence or experience that is influenced by many factors, making it its own system. It can be difficult to find commonality, resolution and a path forward when we do not know what is contributing to the effects of a conflict. We can use a tree analogy alongside our example of a conflict to better understand the system of conflict. 

Tree Analogy 

Image of a tree with labels. The leaves are labelled "effects", the trunk is labelled, "core issues" and the roots labelled "causes"

The tree analogy breaks down conflict into three parts, the effects, the core issues and the causes. A tree analysis is typically used to analyze one core problem at a time (Kenneth MD) and is usually applied to section #3 and #4 of the conflict wheel (Conflict Analysis Framework

The leaves of the tree show the effects of the conflict, or what happens as a result of a conflict. Oftentimes, we are most familiar with the effects we experience personally in a conflict over the effects experienced by others. In our example, the effects might include the conversations between Jakob and Trina, Trina’s feelings of awkwardness and Jakob talking about the issue to their coworkers. 

The trunk of the tree represents the core issue of the conflict. The core issue might be known or unknown to those involved, even to those who hold it. The core issue is what makes the effects of a conflict possible. Sometimes when using this tool, it is easiest to start by identifying the core problem. For Trina, the core issue might be feeling disrespected by Jakob, for Jakob the core issue might be a lack of structure or changes in their role. 

The root of the tree represents the causes of the core issues and consequently their effects. Common causes of conflict at work include organizational structures, limited resources, communication differences, personality differences or incompatible ideas (University of Minnesota Libraries). In our example, the causes might include constraints or directions that Trina is expected to follow as a manager. The causes might also include personal feelings and issues that Trina and Jakob are respectively facing. 

We might use a tree analysis to understand how structural and dynamic factors lead to conflict (GSDRC). Focusing a resolution just on effects rarely produces permanent change. Using a tree analysis can help us distinguish between causes and effects for better strategizing (Conflict Analysis Framework). A tree analysis can provide a basis for a discussion about a conflict to determine who should work on the resolution (Conflict Analysis Framework). Through a tree analysis, we might begin to ideate ways to interrupt the cycle of conflict, understand who is positioned to work on the conflict and be in a better position to empathize and connect with others involved. 

The tools introduced in this article scratch the surface of the deep and meaningful world of conflict and conflict resolution. These tools are often starting points and can be adapted to better fit a situation. While these tools are helpful due to the imperfect world we navigate conflict in, not everyone is able to apply these tools and navigate conflict in the same way. Additionally, the tools within sections #1-#4 of the conflict wheel can help readers understand a conflict but do not provide direct insight into approaching the conflict or resolution. As we continue through our series, we will explore power in conflict and how readers can approach conflict. 

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Header and Feature Image by PJametlene Reskp on Unsplash ❤️

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