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4.2 Conflict-onion model

Guideline for land problems / COMMUNICATING: 4.2 Conflict-onion model

Interventions and evidence explained

Most plausible interventions explained

During the orientation process of the available literature, we identified the following interventions as most plausible for understanding parties’ positions, needs, and interests in ownership and use of land disputes:

  • Asking parties to tell their side of the story
  • Using the “conflict onion” model

A neutral third party can facilitate understanding between parties to an ownership or use of land dispute in different ways and in different settings, depending on the nature of the conflict. “In conflict settings where tensions are high, it may be most appropriate to engage the different stakeholder groups in conflict analysis at separate sessions. This can help them to clarify their positions, interests and options in a neutral setting. In some circumstances, conflict stakeholders may also be engaged in a joint meeting at which all take part. This can be considered only if the issues are not very complex and emotions are not likely to escalate” (Engel & Korf, 2005, p. 112). 

Regardless of the precise circumstances, neutral third parties are typically trained to build understanding between the parties in one of two ways.

Asking parties to tell their side of the story

The standard or baseline way of identifying the positions, needs, and interests of parties to an ownership or use of land dispute is to ask each party to tell their side of the story. “During this step, each side tells its side of the story without interruption. Even if these stories are long, the mediator’s job is to allow each side to tell its full story without interruption, argument, and disrespect. The[se] ‘opening statements’ should explain the history of the conflict, the basic issues at stake,the party’s needs and interests, and the desired solution(s). At the end of the statement, the mediator and any neutral local leaders assisting with the mediation may ask clarifying questions” (Namati, p. 171).

Using the ''conflict-onion'' model

The “conflict onion” model is a dispute resolution tool based on an analogy of an onion with many layers. “The outer layer of the onion represents the positions we allow everyone to see and hear (what we say we want). Underlying these are our interests (what we [really] want), which represent what we wish to achieve in a conflict situation. At the core of the onion are our needs (what we must have), which must be fulfilled for the conflict parties to be truly satisfied with the outcome” (Imam, Modibbo & Sunday, 2020, p. 29).

“Only focusing on the parties’ positions will rarely solve a (land) conflict…When explaining the causes of land conflicts, the positions are often the same: ‘I want the land. The land is mine! Give me the land.’ The position only shows what one conflict party wants from the other party. It is the interest of each party that tells us what they really want, e.g. to grow food and eat it, grow food and sell it, build a house to live in it, build a house to rent or sell it, sell the land in future…Identifying the interests behind a position and eventually even the underlying needs, fears and desires is like peeling an onion, therefore, the (visualization) tool is often referred to as a conflict onion. The identification of interests and needs is typically done during a mediation exercise” (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 56).

“When analyzing interests [using the onion model, it is important to] bear in mind that:

  • All parties have interests and needs that are important and rational to them.
  • A solution to the problem should meet the maximum number of interests of the maximum number of parties possible. 
  • There is always more than one acceptable solution to the problem.
  • Any conflict involves compatible interests, as well as conflicting ones” (Imam, Modibbo & Sunday, 2020, p. 29).

Selected interventions for comparison (defined as a PICO question)

For parties to an ownership or use of land dispute trying to understand each other’s emotions, needs, and interests, is asking parties to tell their side of the story or using the “conflict onion” model more effective for well-being?

Search strategy

The databases used are: HeinOnline, Westlaw, Wiley Online Library, JSTOR, Taylor & Francis, and ResearchGate.

For this PICO question, keywords used in the search strategy are: “conflict onion” land; onion needs interests; onion model land; onion model resolution; onion model land disputes; land mediation needs interests

Assessment and grading of evidence

The main sources of evidence used for this particular subject are:

Quality of evidence and research gap

According to our research method, we grade the evidence comparing asking parties to tell their side of the story and using the “conflict onion” model as very low. There is a dearth of empirical rather than purely theoretical evidence on both interventions. With that said, almost all of the sources of evidence used related specifically to negotiation, mediation, or building understanding of parties’ needs and interests in the context of land disputes. This suggests that the need to identify and understand the emotions, needs, and interests of parties to a land dispute is well-recognised in the field. Future research should aim to fill this gap.

Comparing the two interventions

Desirable outcomes of the interventions

Asking parties to tell their side of the story
Using the “conflict onion” model
Asking parties to tell their side of the story means asking an open question, and open questions help to build understanding between all parties involved. “[Open questions] can be answered in a number of ways, with the response being left open to the respondent. Here, the respondent is given a higher degree of freedom in deciding which answer to give. Open questions are broad in nature, and require more than one or two words for an adequate answer. In general they have the effect of encouraging the interlocutor to respond in more detail about his or her concerns (Hiil, 2014). They are useful in allowing the respondent to express opinions, attitudes, thoughts, and feelings. They do not require any prior knowledge on the part of the questioners, who can ask open questions about topics or events with which they are not familiar. They also encourage the respondent to talk, thereby leaving the questioner free to listen and observe….An important advantage of open questions is that the respondent may reveal information that the questioner had not anticipated” (Hargie, 2017, p. 126).
In addition to helping the parties to examine their own interests and needs, the “conflict onion” model also helps them “to gain a better understanding of the interests and needs of the other side(s)” (Engel & Korf, 2005, p. 113). “[The “conflict onion” model] allows a better understanding of the conflicting parties’ positions, and their real interests and needs. It helps us to distinguish between what the different parties say they want, and what they really want and need” (Imam, Modibbo & Sunday, 2020, p. 29).
“Once the interests, needs, desires and fears of the parties involved in the conflict have been identified [through the “conflict onion” model], it becomes easier to find ways out of the conflict. Someone who wants money or status does not necessarily need this particular piece of land, or indeed any land at all. His desires and needs may be met in other ways. However, someone whose existence is in danger because he has nothing other than this piece of land definitely needs land, although not necessarily this exact piece, so long as the alternative is located in an acceptable location (e.g. at an acceptable distance from formal or informal job opportunities). But if emotional needs are involved and people are especially attached to a given piece of land because it has a special meaning for them, this must be taken into account, which will probably mean that the person has at least a say in defining the kind of use and is ensured future access to it” (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 57).
The “conflict onion” model helps parties work towards constructive and mutually satisfying outcomes. “While interests can often be negotiated, needs are non-negotiable. Although it may be difficult to set other dynamics aside, it is critical that conflicting parties understand their own and each other’s core needs, so that constructive and satisfying outcomes can be achieved” (Imam, Modibbo & Sunday, 2020, p. 29).

Undesirable outcomes of the intervention

Asking parties to tell their side of the story
Using the “conflict onion” model
For a variety of reasons, parties to a land dispute do not typically express their interests clearly in the process of telling their side of the story. “In peaceful situations people relate and act based on their actual needs. In conflict situations, the lack of access to their needs, together with the mistrust that often characterizes relationships in conflict, alters the basis on which people relate to one another” (Imam, Modibbo & Sunday, 2020, p. 29). “Parties rarely identify their interests clearly or directly, perhaps because they: do not know what their genuine interests are; believe that they gain more from a settlement when their goals are unknown by other parties; have adopted such strong positions that the interests themselves have become obscured and are equated with the positions” (Engel & Korf, 2005, p. 112).
Whereas parties can tell their side of the story to build understanding in the absence of a neutral third party, the “conflict onion” model is difficult to use without one. This is because “mediators need to help stakeholders to become aware of the distinction between positions and interests.” In many conflicts, the “positions taken by [the respective parties] seem quite incompatible; there does not seem to be much room for negotiation” (Engel & Korf, 2005, p. 113). Parties may therefore not be able to identify the interests and needs that lie at the core of the conflict (and in the inner layers of the onion) by themselves. Interests that are central to all parties, for example, are often overlooked (Engel & Korf 2005).
This tendency to focus on positions when telling one’s side of the story gets in the way of the search for solutions./ “Focusing on inflexible, immediate and often deeply held positions reduces creativity and restricts the exploration of possible solutions to conflict” (Engel & Korf, 2005, p. 115).
The ability to distinguish parties’ underlying needs and interests from their positions based on what they say is a skill that not all mediators (or other neutral third parties) have. “The mediator must take time during [information collection meetings, in which they hear from each party in turn] to get a greater understanding of each party’s position as well as their underlying interests and needs…The skill of the mediator is to assist the parties to move away from their positions to reveal their underlying needs and interests” (COWI, 2018, p. 8).
Registered land ownership is not necessarily given more evidentiary weight than traditional or unregistered land ownership in court. “Title Registration is not the only source of legal ownership. In most jurisdictions in Africa, although proof of traditional land ownership is not based on registration or any form of documentation, such ownership is recognised by their legal systems” (Abdulai & Ochien, 2016, p. 37). A 2014 study found that “out of the 91 land cases involving registered landownership that were filed in state-sponsored courts and resolved over a ten-year period, 43 cases (47 per cent) were decided in favour of registered ownership, whilst 48 cases (53 per cent) were decided in favour of unregistered ownership…State-sponsored courts will normally examine the facts of each case based on the available evidence in order to establish to the requisite standard, the truth about who actually owns the land to ensure that there is no miscarriage of justice; thus, judgements are delivered based on the truth about ownership and not the fact of registration” (Abdulai & Owusu-Ansah, 2014) (Talibe Abdulai & Ochien, 2016, p. 36).
In the absence of a mediator or other neutral third party, parties may struggle to represent their interests (or understand the other party’s interests) effectively and/or equally. In land disputes involving large- and small-scale mining, for example, “the level of experience and skill with negotiation-based processes usually varies greatly between parties. These disparities are especially large when the stakeholders include indigenous peoples. Parties that are politically marginalized or which lack resources (as commonly found in developing nations) are often unable to represent their interests effectively. In such situations, a mediator should assist disadvantaged parties to better understand the conflict resolution process and their legal rights, to communicate their interests to the other parties, and to understand other parties’ interests (Andrew & Hilson, p. 38).

Balance of Outcomes

Taken together, the available research suggests that asking parties to tell their side of the story and using the “conflict onion” model both have the potential to increase parties’ understanding of each other’s emotions, needs and interests. Both are also less likely to be effective in the absence of a neutral third party to help distinguish positions from interests and needs.

With that said, the desirable outcomes of using the “conflict onion” model clearly outweigh those of asking parties to tell their side of the story. In addition to explicitly distinguishing between positions, interests, and needs, the onion model helps parties to formulate creative solutions and reach constructive and mutually satisfying outcomes. 

The undesirable outcomes of asking parties to tell their side of the story also outweigh those of using the “conflict onion” model. Research suggests that in the process of telling their side of the story, parties to a land dispute are often unable to clearly identify their needs and interests. Instead, they tend to focus on their position, which only exacerbates the conflict and gets in the way of the search for solutions. Even if a mediator is present to assist the parties with this process, their ability to do so based solely on what the parties say will depend on their skill level. 

The “conflict onion” model can help make the process of understanding one another clearly more explicit to all those involved, and therefore less dependent on the abilities of the parties or mediator. Therefore, using the “conflict onion” model is preferred.


Taking into account the balance of outcomes, the benefits of a more explicit process for building understanding between land owners and users, and the quality and consistency of the evidence, we make the following recommendation: For parties to a ownership or use of land dispute trying to understand each other’s emotions, needs, and interests, using the “conflict onion” model is more conducive to well-being than asking parties to tell their side of the story.

Table of Contents

4. Recommendations on COMMUNICATING
4.2 Conflict-onion model