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Peeling Back the Onion

I remember when my wife taught me how to dice an onion. I was never gifted in the kitchen and had very poor (nonexistent) skills when it came to food preparation, so any assistance is always appreciated (but I can make a mean omelet). As I cut into the onion just enough to peel the outer layer, I peeled back the onion skin. Then I peeled some more, then more – I was trying to get the onion to have even layers, but it did not work. There were too many layers. The onion layers are analogous to the foundation of conflict management.

When it comes to conflict management, there are two things that are foundational: having interests and having positions. Positions are different from interests – positions are examples of the “what” people want to have happen and interests are the “why” they are important.

For example, a community wants to put a speed bump on the main entrance of the neighborhood and there are many that do not want it. The “for the speed bump” folks say that it will prevent speeding and the “anti-speed bump” folks say that the flow of traffic will be impeded. The “what” (positions) is installing speed bumps or no speed bumps and the “why” is prevention of speeding and better traffic flow. Another example can be found here with the story of the orange.

Once the positions and interests are defined, then we begin to peel away the layers of the “why” to identify root interests. The purpose of this is to find one thing in common between the two conflicting sides. This can be done with probing questions:

  • Why is that important to you?
  • What benefits will that provide?
  • What is at stake for you?

Once the layers are peeled by focusing on the interests, you may arrive at common concerns of the two conflicting sides – the common ground of each. By whittling to the why someone doesn’t want or does want something, you undoubtedly will arrive at similarities. Once identified, then you can begin to look at the comparisons and build a solution collaboratively. The identification of the interests allows us to explore more possibilities that may be limited by holding on to a specific position. Just use the onion as a reminder to continue to peel back the layers of values, beliefs, and expectations.