By Peter T. Coleman
Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Coleman, Peter T. "Intractable Conflict." Morton Deutsch and Peter T. Coleman, eds., The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000, pp.428-450. New edition (2011, pp. 533-559) available here.
Coleman examines the nature and causes of intractable conflicts. He suggests techniques for intervention into intractable conflicts, and considers the implications of his findings for conflict resolution training.
Intractable conflicts, broadly defined, are intense, deadlocked, and resistant to de-escalation or resolution. They tend to persist over time, with alternating periods of greater and lesser intensity. Intractable conflicts come to focus on needs or values that are of fundamental importance to the parties. The conflict pervades all aspects of the parties' lives, and they see no way to end it short of utterly destroying the other side. Each party's dominant motive is to harm the other. Such conflicts resist common resolution techniques, such as negotiation, mediation, or diplomacy.
Intractable conflicts can be distinguished from manageable conflicts by their issues, contexts and type of escalation. Three types of issues are especially likely to produce intractable conflicts: conflicts over irreconcilable moral differences, high-stakes distributional conflicts, and conflicts over relational power or place in a power hierarchy.
Many intractable conflicts focus on identity issues, rather than on resources issues. Issues are often thought of as deeply rooted in the past. Core issues in intractable conflicts also tend to proliferate, producing a complex web of interlocking issues and complaints that can be very difficult to analyze.
Intractable conflicts often arise in contexts of extreme power imbalance, social injustice or structural violence, where people find it difficult to satisfy their basic human needs. Cultural norms that sanction the use of force make such conflicts more likely to turn violent. As conflicts escalate parties shift from substantive interests, to relationship concerns, to basic needs and values, and ultimately focus on survival. Communication becomes impaired and eventually nonexistent. Parties adopt a win-lose attitude, and then a lose-lose attitude, where the goal is to inflict as much harm on the other as possible. Various social psychological dynamics contribute to escalation: selective perception, overcommitment, self-fulfilling prophecy, dehumanization, cognitive rigidity, gamesmanship, and miscommunication.
Intractable conflicts also have distinctive consequences. They have very high economic costs. They involve pervasive, persistent , and extremely destructive violence. They are passed on through generations. Separating the parties, which may be they only way to contain the violence, actually allows for increased negative stereotyping, and so perpetuates the conflict. Involvement in such conflicts can be so traumatic that it impairs mental health.
Drawing on recent work in the field, Coleman develops eight guidelines for intervening in intractable conflicts. First, begin with a thorough analysis of the conflict system, exploring the history, context, issues and dynamics involved. Second, analysis and intervention should occur in a multidisciplinary framework. Intractable conflicts are very complex. A narrow disciplinary focus can overlook key features, with disastrous results. Third, the parties must be brought to feel that their conflict is ripe and ready for resolution or de-escalation. Feelings of anger and distrust can block any willingness to end the conflict, and so must be addressed and removed. Fourth, redirect parties' attention away from the eventual outcome, and toward the task of developing a fair constructive conflict process in the present. Even if the conflict is irresolvable, it need not be destructive.
Coleman's fifth guideline directs intervening parties to elicit the conflicting parties' own understandings of conflict and conflict resolution, rather than imposing their own "expert" views. Asking rather than telling is more respectful and empowering, and avoids imposing possibly culturally biased models on the parties. Sixth, short-term interventions must be developed in light of long-term objectives. Seventh, intractable conflicts between large groups are best approached by interventions with midlevel leaders, or track II diplomats. Midlevel leaders are generally more realistic, and can exert influence on the top level and at the grassroots level. Finally, intervention strategies must address issues rooted in the past, present and future.
Fruitful techniques for addressing intractable conflicts in the present include crisis management, systematic conflict analysis, interactive problem-solving workshops , and fostering ripeness. Constructive confrontation techniques focus on fostering a constructive conflict process, rather than on reaching a resolution. Techniques for dealing with the past include dialogue, having parties reflect on their own role in the conflict, and processes of reconciliation and forgiveness. In addition, the local culture may offer further resources (in the form of ceremonies or practices) for managing the past. Future oriented techniques include using focused social imaging to create a vision of a better future state, and sustainable reconciliation processes for rebuilding relationships and addressing structural injustice.
Training for practitioners involved with intractable conflicts should stress systems thinking and analysis, and coordination of complex activities. Practitioners need to understand ripeness, and to learn strategies for cultivating ripeness. They should have skills for dealing with traumatized individuals and people who are in psychological crisis. They need training in a variety of conflict-process facilitation skills and techniques. In addition, practitioners must cultivate their own creativity.
Coleman concludes that the best cure for intractable conflicts is prevention. "Our greatest hope in dealing with intractable conflicts is to find the means to avert them."(p. 449)