Toolbox: Conflict icebergs

Episode 10 of the Resist + Renew podcast, where our icebreaker ship explores conflict icebergs as a model: what it highlights, and what it hides.

‘All models are wrong, but some are useful’ – George Box

Show notes, linksPosition: Your initial response to the situation (above the water) e.g. Jon should talk less in meetings, This grop wouldn't exist without me; Interests: What is important to you in this situation, fears and concerns (below the water) e.g. "I want more space to share my ideas", "I want this campaign to win"; Needs that are not yet met in the situation e.g. I need equality, I need to be effective. Shared need e.g. I need to be valued.

The perenially-useful Seeds for Change have a PDF on navigating conflict in groups.

See our “What is facilitation?” podcast episode page for more general facilitation resources.


Ali: This is Resist + Renew.

Kat: A UK-based podcast about social movements.

Sami: What we’re fighting for, why, and how it all happens.

Ali: The hosts of the show are:

Kat: Me Kat,

Sami: Me, Sami,

Ali: and me, Ali,

Sami: I’m recording this now baby

Ali: Shit it’s a podcast.


Sami: So welcome everybody to the Resist + Renew short podcast where we chat about facilitation tools, why we love them, and simultaneously, why we hate them. So, moving in to.
we’re gonna talk today about conflict icebergs. This is a kind of like model for how people understand and can talk about conflict. And the picture that’s often drawn is two icebergs next to each other, where they’re kind of like, the top bit sticking out the water will be described as people’s position in a conflict. So like, that’s kind of like what you can see the first time you’re looking at some people that are in a conflict, and what you understand about yourself what you understand about other people, and and then the bit underneath the water people will describe what’s like the interests chunk. And so that’s talking about like, what is their interest that person has in this conflict? Like, what’s the stake they have? And, and then at the very bottom, you’ll have needs. So that’s the deepest bit. And and this will be like, what is the lack of the kind of fundamental need that people are trying to get met in this conflict, and ways that people often describe this tool. So they’ll talk about it as like a position-interest-needs or a conflict iceberg tool? And is they’ll say that, like, the reason it’s useful as you can use it as a way of thinking about like, well, opposition’s may seem like they’re not overlapping at all. But actually, if you dig down into interests, then even deeper into needs, you’ll maybe uncover a section that actually were both motivated by the same need. And that can help build shared understanding and help as a tool to like move through conflict. And I think people I’ve sometimes hear say, is,
though, like positions are in conflict and interests can be in conflict needs are never in conflict.
TBC as to how true that is. And so let’s chat through a example of when that’s been useful.

Kat: Yeah. So I was facilitating a group. And recently where we were trying to work out kind of the next phase of what we were going to be doing together. And there were two ideas that were kind of opposing: one was to start reading a book and working through a book together. And the others was to definitely not read that book and not work through that book together. So they were polarities around what we were going to do. And, and we had quite a lot of exploration around why people wanted to read the book and why people didn’t want to read the book. And it felt like they were really like, we weren’t going to persuade either side to switch. And so I used the iceberg kind of in my head of like, okay, so there’s this tension, I don’t know our way through, but maybe if we think down a little bit, there’ll be something overlapping.
And we actually just jumped straight into needs, I kind of skipped the interests layer, but went into like, what do we need from this group? Like, why are we here, and everybody did a go round. And in sharing why we were there, there was this real desire to share from personal experience to understand what was going on for us internally and as individuals and in the groups that were part of, and the people that were holding up the book as the thing we should do next was because they thought the book would support us to do that internal work. And the people were saying not the book was because reading for them wasn’t the way that was going to help them do their internal work. But we realised that we all wanted to do the internal work. And, and so the people that want to do the reading group are going to set up an additional group where they get to go through the book, and they get to do that. But we’re going to hold the space that we still do our regular meetings, where we are looking at other ways in which we might be able to go into that internal work. And so it’s kind of a “yes and” solution. But it moved us beyond the polarity, because we then realised we all wanted to be in the space for the same reason, even if it wasn’t doing the same thing.

Kat: So that’s an example of it working. And in a brief way, I’m wondering, like, there are probably a lot of limitations with this tool. So maybe Ali, do you want to start us off on some other spaces where this doesn’t work so well.

Ali: So yeah, limitations of the iceberg model, I guess wanting to jump straight into is that it’s a model and all models of the world are simplifications and therefore wrong in some sense, but it still can be useful to like help look at a particular aspect or think about a particular way. It can be a little bit confusing as a model. I guess. It’s based, I feel like it’s based on, like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and nonviolent communication, where needs are seen as like this universal thing. And there’s a particular like language and understanding around that. So interests and needs can be confusing, has kind of like a, maybe some baggage around it as well, like nonviolent communication has got a lot of baggage. And I guess it’s kind of a little bit individualistic, or it’s like, it’s like a snapshot of a conflict in a particular time when people are thinking about a moment where there’s division, and there are these positions and people in those positions.

Ali: And that can be useful to like, highlight that snapshot, but it doesn’t necessarily acknowledge or provide any help for any kind of structural differences: are the gender, race, class ability, disability dynamics going on, as well? And also, is there like long term beef? Which is kind of like not really represented in this model? I feel like it doesn’t offer a way through that. Not that I know a simple tool that does. But yeah, it can ignore, ignore them. And like, oversimplify things a bit sometimes. What do you what do you what do you both think?

Sami: Yeah, I think like, with that, like, quote, all models are wrong, but some are useful. Like the there is the aim of any kind of model for anything conflict, whatever is never that it’s going to be like 100% accurate reflection of what is going on in a situation. Models are useful in that they illuminate certain things, and then put away certain other things. So it’s what you draw into the centre and what you push out into the margins. And I guess the thing, which is often a critique of this tool, like you were saying is that the thing which it generally puts pushes out into the margins is any kind of like structural context, the thing that it draws into the centre is like a very
individual framing of what’s happening in a situation. And that’s not to say, you can’t then try and use that tool to bring in and bring back in those kind of like structural analyses. But there is definitely something in the way that the framing happened. And the way that things are presented that means what it often casts out is a broader analysis of like, the kind of structures that have led to a situation. And, and that’s not, I guess, to say that this frame, that this tool is flawed, and shouldn’t be used. But it’s more I guess, a useful thing to think about in terms of like, well, what’s the context in which I’m using this? And what other things Am I going to use to try and make sure that we’re not losing that broader political, social structural context?

Ali: You got any thoughts?

Kat: Yeah, just thinking about the example I gave of like, there were structural things that were brought into the conflict, particularly around class and disability and income, access to income. But there was something about the like, we needed to find a way to agreement, that meant that wasn’t really what we were focusing on, we were focusing on like, Okay, so what’s the lowest common denominator that we can go for that is going to make sure that most people are going to be able to agree and move beyond the conflict. And I wonder like, I’m kind of curious, I’d like us to talk more about other models around how we hold conflict, because I think there are, some maybe useful things in the moment that the iceberg does. And if you’re kind of really stuck a polarity, but what else? Because it’s Yeah, it doesn’t cover everything.

Ali: I guess, in that example. Depending on where it went, it might have been different. So like, if the, if the main reason people didn’t want to read book, a book was because we couldn’t afford it, then that need would have changed. And then maybe the group would have gone in a different direction and be like, well, let’s create a fund within the group to buy books for everybody. Make sure we can all do it. That’s what everyone wanted. But it wasn’t, that wasn’t what people wanted. So it didn’t need to go down that route.

Sami: Yeah, I guess, like, What? What’s really useful is, as it’s like, it’s a process, right? Like it’s useful as a process to work through. So that you can basically reflect on whether there is like shared, like some kind of shared need motivating people that’s underlying the conversation. And I guess the limitation that I experienced with it, is the framing that that shared need necessarily exists. Like I don’t think that’s it’s a, that’s a very strong claim that I think isn’t necessary to make the tool useful. Like, it’s useful because the exploration is useful, even if the conclusion you get to is there is no shared underlying need here. And that’s fine. Like, but like, I guess the example I always think of when we talk about conflict, icebergs and this like position, interest needs model. And I guess worth noting, the reason people use icebergs is because of the very like, the very classic thing about icebergs is there’s some stuff above the water and some stuff below the stuff above the what you notice and the stuff below the water that you don’t. And it’s focusing on stuff that you don’t. And once you use this tool in a workshop, and framed it as like, this is a thing which people can use to explore whether there are shared needs people, some people will say that, like there’s always a shared need, that you can find. I’m not sure how much I believe that. And somebody said, Yeah, I mean, I don’t think that maps onto the conflict I’m thinking of, there’s definitely no shared need. Underlying that. I was like, yeah, maybe not. But like, it’s a useful tool to explore, anyway. And so like, went through this process of working through the tool. And the end point that he got to is like, Oh, no, this is totally relevant for the situation. So I think that it’s useful for situations like that, because it never, it very often emotionally doesn’t feel, especially if you’re the person that is like in within this conflict, you don’t feel like there is a shared need. But that is not necessarily a good indicator that there isn’t, and that’s why it’s a good process to work through.

Sami: I do think that there is, and I do want to try and put my finger on what it is about this tool that does make it more individualising. Like, I’m still not sure I’m clear in my head. Like what what about this means that in practice, often it becomes more individualising? Like, is it just because people individualise things? And there’s actually nothing to do with this tool? It’s the people that are using it? Like, is there a way? Like, is that how it’s posed? Or is there something inherent with the idea of thinking through? Because like, I guess you’re inherently thinking through, like, what is your individual as an individual? What is your interest in as an individual? What is your need?

Kat: I think, as an individual on the top of each iceberg, so like, the way you’re working down is like where can we find common ground, rather than we’re in a common thing that we’re then all navigating together? The framing is quite different. Like, if we were like in a in an in a conflict ocean, it would be quite different than if we were all on conflict, icebergs. Don’t know if that analogy works, but like, you’re you’re on your own, or you’re like maybe with one other person that’s in your position, and then you’re in a debate about positionalites that are all individually argued, rather than this sense of it being a collective shared challenge.

Sami: But I guess, I guess the reason I think it’s a challenge to kind of think of this in my head is because like, I think a lot of the needs that people have are fundamentally informed by the structures that they exist in, right, like, people have needs to, like, feel valued in a space that are what is being undermined, with, like, racist micro and macro aggressions. For example, like the needs really, in all of the needs, I can feel like I have a very tightly tied up with how the structures in society and in our groups operate and affect people. So like, I don’t know why that means, but like, it is still in practice a thing that can be very individualising. I’m, I’m finding it hard to connect those two thoughts. Maybe they’re just things, there’s just two things and they can’t be brought into consonants. There’s just two things that seem kind of contradictory. And I just have to sit with that.

Kat: Shall we do our top takeaways?

Sami: Sure. I guess I like it. The top thing for me is like, it’s a really useful tool for exploring how polarised something is and how whether there is a shared a thing between people. Regardless of what the outcome you get to, I think the process can be useful. That’s the takeaway thing for me.

Ali: I think it’s useful. And sometimes we use it in like a not going through it with other people, but going through it for myself and thinking about trying to move away from like my polarise position of like, someone else is wrong or a bad person and just like, recognise my position is this and digging down a bit and trying to build a bit of empathy, which makes me want to
have a conversation sometimes.

Kat: Yeah, I think for me, it’s like useful in a moment of intense polarity, where the group is feeling like it needs to move through something. But this conversation is leaving me with a lot of curiosity for other models, or other ways of doing conflict that really take in the structures.
Yeah, and like feeling some of the limitations of this model for some of the things we’ve been talking about.

Ali: Done.

Sami: Conflict icepacks POW

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