If you are like most people, you became interested and, perhaps, involved in a conflict situation because: 1) you felt feel that your core interests were being threatened; 2)  you are an observer (a student or journalist, for example) trying to understand and explain to others whats going on and, hopefully, how the situation might be better addressed.  3)   you have an idea for “making things better” that you would like to pursue even though you realize that it is likely to generate opposition and conflict; or 4) you think that you might be able to help disputants reduce the destructiveness of an ongoing conflict.

This system provide a Guide for thinking through conflict problems.  Our intention is that you use the Guide to help you understand the big picture of a conflict you are interested in and identify areas in which you--or others--might be able to “make a difference.”  This approach recognizes that nobody has time or ability to focus on everything.  The only way in which people can make a significant contribution to major conflicts is by specializing on a particular aspect of the problem and then developing the skills needed to make a positive change.

Preliminary Considerations

As a first step, it is important to understand the basic nature of the conflict you are interested in or concerned about, and your relationship to it. Key questions are what type of conflict is it: is it a relatively simple problem involving few actors and issues, or is it a complex problem involving many actors and issues? Is it an interest-based, likely negotiable dispute, or a complex, deep-rooted conflict involving non-negotiable issues such as identity, or moral conflicts? What are the stakes? Is it relatively unimportant or very high stakes? What is your relationship to the conflict? Are you a participant on one side of the conflict, or are you an outsider looking in? If so, what kind of outsider? (More information on each of these questions is given below.)

Distinguishing Conflicts from Disputes

In thinking about conflict, it is important to understand the critical distinction between conflicts and disputes. While these words are typically used interchangably, most conflict scholars differentiate between the two. Disputes are fairly simple, usually short-lived clashes of interests that are usually negotiable. In many cases, simple steps can solve these problems. Better communication can clear up misunderstandings. Good negotiation skills can yield ""win-win"" agreements; in other cases a willingness to compromise will result in an agreement that is considered fair for all, even if nobody gets exactly what they initially wanted. In either case, the situation is resolved.

Conflicts, on the other hand, are much more difficult to resolve. They tend to involve non-negotiable differences: high-stakes disagreements over who gets what, moral disagreements, threats to fundamental needs such as identity or security. They often are much more complex than disputes–involving more parties, more interests and issues, more non-linear dynamics, such as escalatory feedback loops.

These concepts are not mutually exclusive, however. Within the context of most conflicts, there are innumerable disputes that settle some aspect of the conflict for some period of time through negotiated agreements or through some type of political, legal, moral, or military, power contest. These disputes can be seen as the battles in a long-running war, or the plays in an endless football game.

In complex, difficult, long-running conflicts (we call them ""intractable""), it is not feasible to contemplate resolving the underlying conflict--at least not in the near term. Rather, the goal is to settle individual dispute episodes in constructive ways–meaning ways that are wiser, more equitable, relatively timely and more efficient.

Scale and Complexity

In some way conflicts are a bit like fractals (those mathematical formulae that generate pretty pictures that have the same pattern at all levels from the very, very small to the very, very large). Small-scale interpersonal disputes exhibit many of the same destructive conflict dynamics and opportunities for mutually beneficial agreements that one sees with very large-scale conflicts involving millions of people and dividing entire societies. However, it is a mistake to underestimate the additional challenges posed by very large-scale, society-wide conflicts involving thousands or millions of active, independent actors. Such conflicts take place in a chaotic and, in many ways, unpredictable environment where everyone is constantly being forced to adapt to the changing behavior of others.

One of the most important lessons for those seeking to promote more constructive approaches to large-scale conflict involves learning how to make the jump to true complexity-oriented thinking. This formidable challenge constitutes the principal frontier of the peace and conflict field. This system explains a specialization and division of labor-based strategy for making this jump.

Several elements are key to this approach to what we call ""complexity-oriented peacebuilding."" First is developing an understanding of the conflict structure and dynamics through a detailed conflict assessment or conflict mapping. Second is developing the ability to identify destructive structures and dynamics that might be ""ripe"" for transformation, while also identifying constructive dynamics and structures that might be further strengthened. Third is developing an understanding of who you are, and where you might ""fit"" in this conflict system

The scale of societys big conflicts is so vast and the powers of an individual or even a major organization are, by comparison, so small that it is hard to imagine a single effort that could transform an entire conflict. (While this may, occasionally, appear to happen, it usually does so after countless unsung heroes have laid the groundwork for success.)

The inherent limits on an individuals influence must not, however, become an excuse for inaction. Positive change only happens when large numbers of individuals work independently on different aspects of the problem, each contributing a piece of the solution.

This system is designed to show how one can do this by first mapping areas where positive contributions might be made and then, based on ones personal goals and skills, selecting one or more areas in which to work. In other words (and to carry the mapping metaphor forward), we suggest users follow up their conflict mapping efforts by ""Adopting a Highway"" – that is, finding some part of the conflict that is in need of repair and designing –and then implementing--an intervention that could make a positive change in the conflict system.

Since there is a great deal of knowledge and literature available on how to resolve interest-based disputes, we focus primarily on complex conflict here. We will give some information on approaches to more tractable conflicts–in part because many of those theories and skills apply to intractable conflicts as well. They just are not sufficient by themselves in intractable conflicts, as they usually are in more tractable disputes.

Your Relationship to the Conflict/Dispute

Conflicts can be approached from two principal perspectives. One perspective is that of the parties themselves. These include in the most basic, legal sense, ""complainants"" (who complain about the actions of another party) and the ""defendants"" who defend themselves from such complaints. In practice, this generally gets muddled up with both sides simultaneously complaining about one another, while also working to defend themselves. It is, of course, common for conflicts to occur in a complicated social context with a multitude of overlapping conflicts and complex webs of alliances. In general, however, all of these disputants are typically called ""parties"" to the conflict.

The principal alternative perspective is that of a ""third party,"" –someone who doesnt have a personal stake in the outcome of the conflict, but has some other interest in it. Third parties include potential ""intermediaries""– people who have an altruistic and/or professional interest in helping the parties more clearly understand and constructively handle the situation. Other third parties are simply observers or reporters–people who examine a conflict from the outside and then report on what they see. (Students would be in this category, unless they focus on a conflict in which they are also a disputant, or when they transition to an active intermediary.) A third type of third-party are conflict profiteers–people and organizations who, in one way or another, seek to benefit from the conflict and, therefore, try to continue and intensifying it.

In all of these cases, the first step toward making things better is to understand the overall situation from the perspective of adversaries, the real drivers of any conflict. This website, therefore, examines conflict from that perspective in the belief that this is also what constructive third-parties need to know. In exploring things from this adversarial perspective we also offer something of a consumer guide to potentially useful third-party services and cautionary advice about how to limit the role of profiteers.

Conflict Assessment and "Mapping

No matter what role you play and no matter the depth or complexity of the conflict situation you are looking at, it is important to learn as much as you can about what is going on and what is driving the conflict or dispute. In the case of simple two-party, interest-based disputes, this is relatively simple. In complex, deep-rooted conflicts, this is a much more challenging and time-consuming process.

"Traditional" Conflict Assessment

Traditionally, conflict assessment is done by talking to as many people who are involved in the conflict as possible (within reason of course): people on all sides, in different roles, who are likely to know what the conflict is ""about."" Interviews are supplemented by reading written documents–news accounts, reports, editorials, blog posts, etc. The result can range from mental pictures that one constructs in ones head for ones own purposes. They can be written in essay form as a case study that is especially attentive to conflict dynamics. (This means not just describing who is involved and how, what has happened, but also why things happened, and exploring things that might be done to transform the conflict into one which is less destructive and more constructive.)

Many rubrics–generally sets of questions or topics to explore-- have been created for doing this–a sample of some of these are presented below.

Guy Burgess is a Founder and Co-Director of the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and has been working in the conflict resolution field, as a scholar and a practitioner, since 1979. His primary interests involve the study and management of intractable conflicts, public policy dispute resolution, and the dissemination of conflict resolution knowledge over the Internet. He is one of the primary authors and creators of the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflicts, and is the Co-Director of CRInfo -- the Conflict Resolution Information Source. Dr. Burgess has edited and authored a number of books and articles, the most recent being The Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution (with Heidi Burgess, ABC-Clio 1999).