ON THE AGENDA | JULY 25TH, 2016 | MATT LEIGHNINGER and Tina Nabatchi

Managing Conflict

Understanding the basics of how to manage differences can go a long way toward improving public participation.

Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation Part 6

Although public participation projects rarely include formal conflict resolution processes, a general sense of how to manage conflict can be invaluable for building coalitions and facilitating meetings.

Participation leaders may face deep divisions and histories of conflict between city and county governments, school systems and governments, advocacy groups and federal agencies, developers and neighborhood leaders, elected officials from different political parties, unions and employers, and people of different racial or ethnic groups. They are also likely to face conflicting views about an issue under discussion and what ought to be done about it.

Understanding the basics of how to manage those differences can go a long way toward improving public participation. Two skills are particularly relevant to managing conflict: understanding positions and interests, and principled negotiation and interest-based problem solving.

Understanding Positions and Interests

Positions are what a person or group wants, or the demand a person or group is making.

Interests are the needs, values or concerns that underlie a position – they are why a person or group wants something.

For any given issue, people generally have only one position but many interests, with some interests being stronger than others. People with conflicting positions often share basic interests, which can form the foundation for constructive discussions and potential solutions.

Understanding the difference between positions and interests is central to conflict management, where a core tenet is that processes should focus on interests, rather than on positions. The logic is simple: Position-based processes tend to be adversarial and interest-based processes tend to be cooperative.

When a process focuses on positions, it sets up and supports conflicting (or opposing) one-sided demands and arguments. Thus, position-based processes “generally breed and foster conflict and take on a game-like appearance, where winning is defined as prevailing in the outcome.”

In contrast, interest-based processes tend to be more cooperative and collaborative. When a process focuses on interests, it enables parties to clarify and articulate their needs, concerns and desires, and focus on how those interests might be best met. Thus, interest-based processes generally become less adversarial and more cooperative, “where winning is defined as reaching a mutually satisfactory outcome everyone can support" (though it may not be their first choice).

Conventional processes are, by their nature, positional. With only a few individuals having only a short time at the microphone, the comments – almost out of necessity – are presented as demands. There is little time to get to the why behind the demand, and because others generally are not given an opportunity to respond, the question never gets asked. Thus, by their very structure, conventional processes tend to “encourage participants to take more extreme positions,” thus promoting an adversarial tone.

However, if people are provided with an opportunity to explain their positions, to reveal the interests that underlie their demands, they are likely to identify many points in common. Focusing a discussion around those shared interests, rather than the divergent positions, is likely to lead to a more productive conversation.

In moving from positions to interests during discussions, we can think about issues as if they were an iceberg. Positions – the demands about or solutions to the issue that people present – are the most visible part of the iceberg. Underneath the positions are myriad interests that are not readily visible. These interests form the largest part of the iceberg – the largest part of an argument for or against an issue.

Identifying the interests that underlie a position is fairly simple. To identify interests, listen and ask questions:

Why do you care about this issue (or position)?

Why is (the position) important to you?

What will getting that position do for you?

How will things change if you succeed?

These questions help people move beyond their demands to articulate the needs, concerns, values and desires that drive those demands.

So, how can we transform public participation so that it focuses more on interests than positions? Principled negotiation and interest-based problem solving provide some answers.

Principled Negotiation and Interest-Based Problem Solving

Principled negation and interest-based problem solving (IBPS) are related approaches to conflict management that can easily be integrated into public participation. Principled negotiation and IBPS have 5 basic principles and 5 basic steps:

The Principles and Steps of Principled Negotiation and Interest-Based Problem Solving


  1. Focus on issues, not personalities
  2. Focus on interest, not positions
  3. Focus on options, not proposals
  4. Evaluate options in terms of mutual gains, not personal gains
  5. Make decisions-based on consensus, not competition or coercion


  1. Describe and clarify the issue or problem (“talk story”)
  2. Identify and discuss interests; Reframe issues
  3. Generate options
  4. Evaluate options against interests and criteria
  5. Agree on a consensus solution

Many of the ideas and steps in principled negotiation and IBPS are mirrored in the notion of treating people like adults. Both principled negotiation and IBPS are rooted in sound group process techniques and give people a chance to tell their stories. This not only allows for the provision of information, but also enables people to talk about interests.

Generating and evaluating options provides people choices, and consensus solutions give people a sense of political legitimacy and can support them in taking action. These notions of positions and interests, and principled negotiation and IBPS more generally, underlie many of the other participation skills we discuss throughout this series.

Read other blogs in this series:

Part 1: Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation

Part 2: Building Coalitions and Networks

Part 3: Cultural Competence and Engaging Youth

Part 4: Recruiting Participants

Part 5: Communicating About Participation

Portions of this post were excerpted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy by Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger. Copyright© 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.


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