What is your conflict really about? The “Conflict Iceberg” Tool

Why do people have conflict?

Being a third party to a conflict can be a confusing position. When people are angry and upset, they will describe their conflicts in ways that don’t make a lot of sense to those of us outside of it. In our work doing conflict mediation in nonprofit and activist groups in Quebec, the first things people tell us about their conflicts look like this:

  • Being really vague: “We have a communications issue”
  • Talking about only the most recent incident: “She edited the document without telling me”
  • Using frameworks that they think will help them get heard: “it’s a conflict of interest and possibly illegal”; “it’s a question of values”;
  • Talking about the most material, or substantive issues: “he owes me money”
  • Minimizing & obscuring, often because of insufficient trust- “we just don’t get along”

If we jump ahead to trying to resolve a conflict without really understanding what is going on, we can often make it worse. To resolve a conflict, we have to understand the real reasons it’s happening! That’s where the conflict iceberg comes in: it’s almost a “cheat sheet” that helps us explore some of the different reasons people might have a conflict.

The Conflict Iceberg

The conflict iceberg was not invented by COCo, and you will find lots of them on the internet. We simply combined some of our favourites, and we welcome new “layers” if you have some other ‘reasons for conflict’ that come to mind!

In this tool, the “substantive issues” are visible – but there are many others that are less obvious. In other conflicts, it might be another part of the iceberg that is clear. Regardless of what is “at the top”, the conflict iceberg helps us explore why a conflict is occurring.

How to Use the Conflict Iceberg

The first step in resolving a conflict in your nonprofit organization is understanding why it is happening. If you are a manager or a colleague, you can use the tool to come up with good questions to ask of the people involved in the conflict. These questions will give you a fuller picture of the conflict. After opening with a simple, “ In your opinion, what is this conflict about?”, here are some examples that can help you dig deeper:

  • Substantive and material issues. Do you share resources (time, money, space, people) with this other person? How does that go? If there were more of any of these resources, would it change the conflict?
  • Feelings. How you feel about the conflict? How do you feel about the person you’re experiencing conflict with? How does this conflict make you feel?
  • Relationships. What are your relationships like with the people who are involved in the conflict? Are there any formal or informal power dynamics in your relationships with them? What was your relationship like before the conflict?
  • Interests, needs, desires. What kind of future do you see for yourself in the organization or in this field? Is this conflict affecting it? What do you need to feel good in your work? What do you need to feel you have a good working relationship with someone? What do you need to feel like you are doing a good job? What are you trying to achieve in your position?
  • Expectations (hidden, unmet). What do you wish this person was doing differently? Are there things that you feel are obvious, but they don’t seem to understand or care about? What do you want from other people in this conflict? Have you felt let down?
  • Procedural interests/fairness. How do you think this conflict should be handled? What resolutions would you consider fair in the handling of this issue? How have you felt about the process so far?
  • Conflict style. What would you say is your conflict style? How do you resolve conflicts in general? How do you react to conflict?
  • Self-perception and self-esteem. How do you feel about your role in the organization in general? Why do you think this is occuring?
  • Unresolved issues from the past. Have you encountered similar issues within the organization in the past? Were those issues resolved? Have you had past conflict with this person? What happened?

These questions are not prescriptive or exhaustive, and it’s best that you choose your questions based on the context of the conflict. Most of the examples we listed are for workplaces- but the “reasons” apply equally to conflicts outside of the workplace. Follow up with more questions where something important comes up! At COCo, we will use this tool in trainings to get people to practice “interviewing” someone about a conflict, and generate their own questions.  Use this tool to help you ask the right questions and really listen in order to more accurately identify underlying issues; better understand your staff’s needs and concerns; pave a creative path for problem solving; and create a spirit of good conflict resolution as a strategy for rebuilding relationships.

Other Conflict Resolution Tools

  • In our conflict trainings, we very often make use of the conflict management continuum
  • One of our favourite “conflict styles” model is the Thomas Killman’s. It can help you explore your own conflict style and that of your team’s!
  • A few years ago, COCo created a list of organizational practices that help prevent conflict from occurring in the first place. You can find it here!

In other great news, COCo is starting a research and training project this summer focussed on understanding the relationship between conflict and anti-oppression – a project that will help us dive more into the part of the iceberg called “systemic inequality”. Stay tuned for more news on this project!

Amaya Athill and Kira Page are COCo mediators.

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