The Conflict Layer Model

Clarifying Needs During Negotiations

The Conflict Layer Model - Clarifying Needs During Negotiations

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"Peel back the layers," for a more effective negotiation.

When you were last involved in a negotiation (however big or small), did you feel that you truly understood the other person's needs? Chances are, you didn't.

During negotiations, it's common for people not to reveal their deepest needs – sometimes, even to themselves. They may feel selfish, foolish, or vulnerable talking about them, so they focus on less important issues instead.

Unfortunately, when this happens, the negotiation may not deliver a long-term solution, because it won't be based on what people really want.

In this article, we'll look at the Conflict Layer Model, a tool that you can use to explore your own true needs in a negotiation situation.

About the Model

Simon Fisher, Dekha Ibrahim Abdi, Jawed Ludin, Richard Smith, Steve Williams, and Sue Williams explained the Conflict Layer Model in their 2000 book, "Working with Conflict."

The model, also known as the Onion Model of Conflict Resolution and the PIN Model of Conflict Resolution, is shown in figure 1.

Figure 1 – The Conflict Layer Model


From "Working With Conflict" by S. Fisher et al. Published by Zed Books, 2000. Reproduced with permission.

During negotiations where you don't know or trust the other person, you may hide your needs because you feel embarrassed or vulnerable. Instead, you might take up a stance that's based on how you want to be perceived. This is known as your position.

Behind your position lie your interests. These are the stated reasons that support your position, but they may not represent your true needs.

The model aims to peel away these layers, and to focus on the needs that really matter to you. When you state your needs openly, it will encourage the other party to do the same. Then, once you've both identified and communicated your real needs, you can work to find a solution that meets them.


This model is not suitable for all negotiations. It's more suited to situations in which people feel able to talk freely and openly, and it's less appropriate when people's needs must be hidden, or when people must be seen to "toe a party line." In this situation, distributive bargaining may be more suitable.

Read our article on Lewicki and Hiam's Negotiation Matrix to choose the right negotiation approach. You'll see that the Conflict Layer Model most closely matches Lewicki and Hiam's collaboration strategy.

How to Apply the Model

You can use the model to prepare before negotiations begin, as well as to understand other people's needs during the negotiation. Follow the steps below to do your preparation. You can use a similar approach during the negotiation itself.

Step 1: Separate Your Position From Your Interest

Your position is the "want" that you have expressed publicly to the other party. You need to explore this to find your interests – what you want to achieve from this situation.

So, start by writing down what you have said you need, or what you think you want to achieve from this situation.

Next, list the reasons you've given to support your position. These are your interests. (If necessary, use the 5 Whys or Appreciation techniques to explore why these issues or solutions are important to you.)


Jan is a community outreach coordinator for a grocery chain that wants to build a store in a thriving downtown. She needs to negotiate for this with the city council. The council is resisting the idea of a new store, but is keen to attract more people to the area.

Jan prepares for the negotiation by exploring her position and her interests, using the model.

Jan's Position

Jan's organization wants a purpose-built store in the downtown.

Jan's Interests

The organization wants the store in this location, so that it can access high levels of foot traffic, and so that it can get involved in downtown festivals and other community outreach opportunities.

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Step 2: Identify Your Needs

Once you have identified your interests, your next step is to distill them further to discover your deeper needs. These are the needs you must meet to feel satisfied. Often, they are non-negotiable – you need to meet them for the negotiation to have been a success.

Think carefully about the interests that you have defined. Keep in mind that your interests are often a means to an end – they help you meet your needs. So, what basic or intrinsic needs do these interests help you address?

Then, be completely honest with yourself. Ask yourself if there are other, more self-interested or less easily discussed needs that you need to address as well.


Jan's Needs

The organization needs to generate a good income, and it needs a profitable location to do this. It also needs to develop a good reputation in the community to ensure that the new store is viable in the long term.

Step 3: Negotiate

Your next step using the model is to state your needs clearly. When you do this, you create an atmosphere of trust that will encourage the other party to be open about their true needs.

Then, negotiate to meet your needs. Where appropriate, use win-win negotiation and integrative negotiation to explore solutions based on shared needs.


Jan explains her true needs with members of the city council. The city councilors then do the same, and it's clear that some of their needs overlap with Jan's. In particular, both parties need to maintain high footfall in the downtown area.

However, the councilors are concerned that the new store may not match the style of the downtown buildings, and they fear that it will compete with local independent retailers.

Jan and the councilors then begin a more formal discussion that focuses on their shared need. They use integrative negotiation to explore solutions, and they "trade favors," so that both parties feel satisfied with the outcome. They agree that the council will grant permission for Jan's organization to open a new store if it agrees to make sure that the facility matches the look of other stores in the area, and if it offers locally made products for sale.

Key Points

Simon Fisher, Dekha Ibrahim Abdi, Jawed Ludin, Richard Smith, Steve Williams, and Sue Williams explained the Conflict Layer Model in their 2000 book, "Working with Conflict."

The model helps you "peel away" the superficial positions that people often adopt at the start of a negotiation, so that you can get to the real substance of what they want.

This helps you find a solution that meets the needs of everyone involved.