Positions – Interests – Needs

The conflict onion

This tool helps to identify and differentiate the motivations, i.e. positions, interests and needs that mobilise actors in conflict contexts. We don’t have to talk about an open or violent conflict. We already know that any sustainable development topic we are going to address implies stakeholders with different positions and intereses. So, this tool also contributes to a better understanding of the different actors and the interventions needed.

A model frequently used in conflict analysis states that behind the positions expressed in a conflict there are interests behind which there are needs (see also Julio Quan’s model).

It consists of analysing the motives of the stakeholders or conflict parties by analysing their positions (what they say they want), their interests (what they want in this situation) and their needs (basic, non-negotiable).

This model is widely known as the onion model of conflict based on the idea that an onion can be peeled layer by layer.

Positions: What we say about what we want

They represent the formal or official demand that the stakeholders or conflict parties assume and intend to defend.
The outer layers represent the positions on the topic or conflict that we take publicly – usually a mixture of judgements, perceptions, arguments and values. The discourse can be very rigid and leave little room for negotiation.

They contain what the conflicting party wants and demands. In their essence these are demands that contain paths and objectives that a stakeholder or conflict party wants to pursue or wants to see realised. Most of the time, positions are publicly announced conflict resolution ideas in the form of demands.Positions carry ideas of resolution, as well as the corresponding subjective perspective on the situation, the role of the conflict parties and the expected results of the conflict.

Positions carry ideas of resolution, the corresponding subjective perspective on the situation, the role of the conflict parties and the expected results of the conflict. In order to legitimise one’s own position, higher values and standards are often used

Interests: What we really want

The motivation behind the position, what those involved really want in a specific situation.
Interests contain the concrete goals that the conflicting parties want to achieve, the motives behind their positions.

They can be communicated openly, but they can also be hidden or disguised. Often, the same actor pursues several interests at the same time.

They can be negotiated and their importance for the conflicting parties can change over time. Interests answer the question of what a conflict party wants to achieve at a given point in time.
They are usually long-term and include the broader aspirations and goals of a group. As with needs, people may keep interests hidden for fear that revealing them might weaken their ability to negotiate. However, it is often easier to find common ground around interests than around hardened positions.

Needs: What we must have

At the centre of the illustration are our needs – the most important things that parties require and need to satisfy in a conflict. Clearly identifying and understanding what our needs and interests are and those of “the other” also allows us to identify more and better alternatives for compromise.The fundamental requirements for survival that are non-negotiable, i.e. basic human needs.
In addition to a deeper understanding of the conflict, the onion model aims at working with the conflicting parties towards an agreement of both conflicting parties.

To this end, the model works on two aspects.
On the one hand, it opens the way for new, unthought-of solutions, which may differ from the positions, but which in any case meet the needs of all parties involved.
On the other hand, understanding and empathy must be generated. For the more we descend into the realm of basic needs, the more we touch the common humanity of all human beings.

The scientist Manfred Max Neef proposes nine basic human needs of human beings:

  • Subsistence
  • Protection
  • Affection
  • Understanding
  • Participation
  • Leisure
  • Creation
  • Identity
  • Freedom

A second widely used model is the list of needs identified by Marshall Rosenberg in the framework of the “non-violent communication” method, which uses the following categories:

  • Subsistence
  • Security
  • Relational needs
  • Development
  • Leisure
  • Celebration
  • Identity
  • Freedom
  • Meaning

Maslow’s pyramid is also often cited, but it is being questioned because it presents the scope of needs in a linear way, which does not correspond to reality if we look at them from a systemic perspective.



Based on your project or climate justice initiative:

Step 1: Identify the stakeholders / conflict parties

Step 2: Identify for each stakeholder / conflict party

  • Position
  • Interest
  • Need
  • Fear