Summary of "The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop"

Summary of

The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop

by William Ury

Summary written by Brett Reeder, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Ury, William. The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2000.

Ury begins his introduction by saying "No more important challenge faces us today than how to deal with our differences." He suggests that currently our differences are often resolved by fighting which he defines as "...attempts to resolve conflict through the use of coercive force." He goes on to argue that this phenomenon is largely the result the widely held beliefs that "there is no other way" to resolve differences, or that conflict is human nature.

The first section responds to the assumption that "there is no other way" by providing an alternative to violence which he calls "the third side". According to Ury, the third side is "...people from the community, using a certain kind of power--the power of peers, from a certain perspective--of common ground, supporting a certain process--of dialog and nonviolence, and aiming for a certain product-a "triple win." He defines this "triple win" as "...a resolution that satisfies the legitimate needs of the parties and at the same time meets the needs of the wider community." For a more detailed description of the "third side" see and

Having provided an alternative to violence, in the second part of the book Ury turns his attention to the assumed inevitability of violence. While many people believe that violence is in "human nature," Ury argues that this assumption is an "origin myth" of contemporary Western society. He points to "simpler societies" such as the Bushmen and the Semai as examples of societies that do not assume the inevitability of violence and goes on to suggest that for 99% of human history violent coercion was probably not the norm. Rather, he suggests that it is only in the most recent 1% of human history that war and violence have been accepted as "human nature."

He attributes this shift to the economic shift from a resource base that is "expandable" in hunter-gatherer societies (wild foods) to one that is "fixed" in complex agriculturalist societies (land and power). As the resource base became "fixed," the "basic logic of conflict" is thought to have shifted from "win-win" to "win-lose" where one person's gain is another person's loss. This shift in logic is thought to have encouraged violent coercion, but the resource base is again shifting to an expandable resource (information) and thus the "basic logic of conflict" can shift back to "win-win". Thus, Ury views violent coercion not as inevitable, but as a socially-constructed norm.

In the third part of this book Ury addresses the question of "what can be done" to prevent violent conflict by identifying "...three major opportunities to channel the conflict's vertical momentum, which leads to destructive struggle, into a horizontal impulse, which leads to constructive change." The first of these opportunities is prevention. People can prevent conflicts from happening in the first place by addressing latent tensions. The second opportunity Ury identifies is resolution. When conflicts do arise, they can be resolved before they escalate. The final opportunity is containment. When escalating power struggles temporarily escape resolution, they can be contained to prevent violent expressions of frustration.

Within each of these "opportunities" Ury identifies "practical roles" individuals can embody to help stop violent coercion. Within the prevention opportunity, one can be a "provider" to help meet frustrated needs, a teacher to address poor skills and a bridge Builder to strengthen weak relationships. Within the resolution opportunity, one can be a mediator to address conflicting interests, an arbitrator to address disputed rights, an "equalizer" to address unequal power relationships, and/or a healer to nurture injured relationships. Within the containment opportunity, one can be a witness to address a lack of attention, a "referee" to address the lack of limitations or a peacekeeper to address a lack of protections. For a more detailed account of these ten "practical roles" see see and

In its three parts, The Third Side addresses common assumptions about violence and concludes that there is an alternative to violence, violence is not inevitable and it can be stopped. Ury's alternative to violent coercion is the "third side" in which people with a common perspective (of common ground) and unified process (of dialog and non-violence) seek a "triple win" (or a resolution which satisfies both the parties and the society at large). In order to achieve this "triple win," individuals can practice ten distinct roles in their attempts to prevent, resolve or contain a conflict. Similar to other works such as Diamond and McDonald's Multi-Track Diplomacy, Ury's Third Side acknowledges that there are many roles to be played to prevent and/or resolve violent conflicts. But Ury's book is especially important as it emphasizes the roles that everyone-leaders and "average" people can play to help bring peace and stability to their lives and their society.