When disputes are part of a long-running conflict, they are often more complex, and more deep-rooted than disputes which really are arising for the first time. For this reason it is important to be aware of the conflict history, and realize the impact that history has on the current situation and the parties' interpretation of that situation. Understanding who was involved, what the old issues were, and how the conflict was handled in the past is key to being able to confront the conflict effectively in the present. Without a thorough conflict assessment, disputants are likely to misinterpret what is currently going on, and may well try to implement solutions that won't work or will make the situation worse, not better. The same thing is true if disputants ignore current, related disputes or conflicts. Sometimes several related disputes are going on at once with overlapping parties or issues. Sometimes broader political, economic, or social trends impact on a smaller-scale dispute. If the impact of the related disputes or ongoing political, economic, or social dynamics is ignored, the chances of effectively responding to the immediate dispute situation are greatly reduced.

Complex conflicts are likely to involve a long series of often overlapping dispute episodes addressing different aspects of the overall conflict. In some cases, these individual disputes may be negotiated or mediated. Other disputes may be addressed through legal or political processes, public demonstrations, or police or military action. Often several of these processes are pursued simultaneously or sequentially, further complicating the process. Dealing with complexity requires effective intervention coordination. This coordination may be intentional and overt, or it may be more just a norm among the parties to stay abreast of what others are doing, establishing relationships between different "third siders" and trying to work together or in concert as much as possible to magnify the effect of any one intervention. Many conflict scholars today are calling for "meta-conflict resolution," in which all the different aspects of a conflict, including social, political, economic, psychological, legal, and other factors are all addressed simultaneously by different actors working in concert to bring about positive change. 

Another key to dealing with procedural complexity is not to promise to do more than can be done. It is unrealistic to expect a single effort to resolve every problem. Promising "resolution" at all may be unrealistic; it may make more sense to just try to "examine the issues" or resolve one aspect of the conflict, or work to improve intergroup communication or understanding, before one tries to deal with the entire conflict. As with most incremental approaches, it is useful to analyze the full scope of conflict, identify those conflict problems that are having the most severe adverse effects, and develop interventions designed to limit those problems. In some cases this may involve a negotiated resolution of some of the sub-issues. In other cases, it may involve efforts to limit escalation, open channels of communication, or expose parties to nonviolent strategies for better advancing their interests. An intervention that is modest, realistic, and works is superior to an overly ambitious plan that fails and undermines the parties' confidence in conflict resolution processes overall.

Also likely to be useful are approaches which handle a group of related conflicts with a standard procedure. By designing a dispute management system, related disputes can be grouped together and handled in the same way, simplifying the process and the cost of individual dispute handling. In addition, skill building or capacity building projects which improve the ability of individual people to deal with their own conflicts can help deal with complexity from the "ground up." Relying on local knowledge embodied in grassroots dispute resolution systems can often be an effective way to deal with complexity.

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By Guy Burgess & Michelle Maiese

Michelle Maiese is a graduate student of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder and is a part of the research staff at the Conflict Research Consortium. Michelle Maiese is a contributor to Beyond Intractability which is an online “encyclopedia” compiling easy-to-understand essays on almost 400 topics which explain the dynamics of conflict along with available options for promoting more constructive approaches.