Make-a-Difference Guide

An Online Diagnostic Guide

Made possible by a grant from
Arts and Sciences Support of Education Through Technology
University of Colorado Boulder

Also made possible through knowledge base support from the
Beyond Intractability Project 
Conflict Information Consortium
University of Colorado Boulder

Guy Burgess Ph.D. and Heidi Burgess Ph.D.
Peace and Conflict Studies
Department of Communication
Research Associates
Conflict Information Consortium
Center for the Advancement of Research and Teaching in the Social Sciences (CARTSS)
University of Colorado Boulder


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.

Graphical Conflict Mapping

An alternative which we find even more useful for understanding complex conflicts is graphical mapping. Graphical mapping techniques to do a better job of capturing and succinctly conveying the complex structure of intractable conflicts. Such maps can be constructed on giant pieces of paper (or on regular paper with very small type). Better yet, we think, are computer-based that can be built with familiar programs (including Powerpoint and Prezi) or more specific dynamic modeling programs which range from open source, free programs to expensive commercial programs. Since such programs change frequently, we do not list these here, but refer users to Wikipedia that has an impressive list that is frequently updated:

The advantage of graphical mapping is that one can get a lot of information together in visually understandable forms. You can start with a ""zoomed out"" big picture of the entire conflict system at a macro level, and then ""zoom in"" on particular parts of the system to explore details. This ""zoomed in"" section can then serve as a basis for deliberate efforts to improve some aspect of the conflict.

What to Map: While different conflict situations will, obviously, generate very different maps, there are still a number of key topics that ought to be considered and, if appropriate, addressed in most maps. These topics include: (1) The primary parties (the folks who are fighting); (2) The principal issues in dispute (positions and underlying interests, values, and needs); (3) Institutional settings in which the conflict is being played out (e.g. the courts, legislatures, elections, the battlefield) (4) sources of power of each of the parties and power strategies they are using; (5) conflict dynamics, including both destructive and constructive dynamics, and (6) the potential role of intermediaries (mediators, arbitrators, and facilitators who may be able to help the parties handle the conflict more constructively). Information about all of these elements is found in more detail below.

Core Substantive Issues in Conflict

After identifying the parties, the next step is to ask the obvious question, what are the parties fighting about? Here, it makes sense to focus on the core issues – the things that really matter. However, it can be surprisingly difficult to figure out what, exactly, those are. In fact, the parties themselves are often unclear. Goals are typically stated as positions–parties advocate or demand a particular outcome–for instance, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or Israeli retreat from all its West Bank settlements. Both of those are positions–and they tend to be diametrically opposed to the positions of the other side, making resolution all but impossible. But underneath the positions are more fundamental issues–interests, values, and needs. People sometimes dont even recognize what those more fundamental goals are, and they lose track of the fact that their position is actually taking them farther away from those interests, values, and needs, than achieving them. So defining ones underlying interests, values, and needs and the optimal way of pursuing them is of high importance.

In the most difficult and intractable conflicts, interests, values and needs tend to cluster into four primary kinds of conflicts: distributional conflicts, moral conflicts, status conflicts, and identity conflicts.

Justice / Needs

A similar set of problems revolve around the concept of human needs which encompass (in addition to such basics as food, clean water, and shelter) the social-psychological needs of identity and security. People who feel that their ability to satisfy these basic needs is being threatened are, of course, likely to respond quite defensively. The frustrations of those with chronically unmet needs are also a frequent source of tension and misery. Not surprisingly, understanding all of this is at the core of understanding conflict.

Distributional Conflict

The underlying goals associated with many conflicts focus around distributional questions over ""who gets what."" These questions can, in turn, be divided into two principal groupings. First, there are those that fall within the ""zone of possible agreement"" (ZOPA) meaning opportunities exist for resolving the distributional questions in a ""win-win"" way that benefit both parties. In ""tractable"" conflict situations, this may be done by finding ways to ""enlarge the pie"" (what game theorists call a positive-sum game) or by negotiating mutually beneficial trade-offs in which the parties trade something that they have, but dont really want or need, for something that the other party has but doesnt really want or need.

Other, ""intractable"" situations fall outside the ZOPA because win-win opportunities and potential trade-offs have already been exhausted or because such opportunities never have existed. In these cases, you have a much more contentious ""win-lose"" game (that game theorists call ""zero or negative sum"") in which the only way to get ahead is by taking something from someone else – a sure formula for divisive confrontation.

Moral Conflict

Moral conflicts involve fundamental questions of right and wrong and good and evil and are, therefore, much less amenable to win-win compromises than distributional conflicts. In many cases, however, moral conflicts can be resolved in a spirit of tolerance and coexistence where contending groups simply ""agree to disagree"" and let others live as they choose in return for being granted the same freedom. This is why ""freedom"" is so critical to the success of diverse societies.

This principle has limits, however, and these limits are the focal point for some of the worlds most intractable and destructive conflicts. Such problems arise when one group feels that the actions or beliefs of another group are so morally repugnant that they cannot be tolerated and must be actively opposed. The belief that abortion is equivalent to infanticide is one obvious example. In this case, the conflict revolves around the appropriateness of using governmental power to enforce a particular set of moral beliefs. Moral conflicts also tend be extremely intense when questions arise about whose values public institutions will convey to the next generation. Here the problem seems to be an inherent conflict between the right of families to feel secure in their cultural beliefs and the rights of children to consider and perhaps make changes in what they believe. Also important is the process through which cultural beliefs which are thought by some to be outmoded can be challenged.

Status / Oppression Conflicts

Also at the core of a great many conflicts are questions of status and who is more and less valued and respected by the community. To some degree, status conflicts reflect the simple desire for power and the ability to use that power to command broader allegiance to ones moral values and a larger distributional share of a societys resources. However, status conflicts are more than this. They involve fundamental social and psychological questions that go to the core of an individuals sense of self-worth and the deep distaste that we all have when we sense that we are being disrespected or humiliated. Also tied up with status is the competitive, "power over" orientation that many people have toward social interactions where their self-worth is measured by ones place on the "pecking order."

In all too many cases, status differences become extreme and widely seen as illegitimate. This results in conflicts between those challenging what they regard as oppression and those striving to defend their privileged positions.

Identity / Security Conflicts

Finally, there are identity conflicts which tend to subsume distributional, moral, and status issues into very long-running conflicts between social groups that, over time, come to view their identity as being in opposition to the other group. In this context, anything that advances their group is good news as is anything that hurts the other group. A great many of the world’s most dangerous tensions fall along identity group lines – Hutu and Tutsi, Shiite and Sunni, Democrats and Republicans, for example. Closely related to identity is security. If one’s personal or group security is threatened, either by violence or social-psychological threats to one’s well-being, this tend to elicit very strong and prolonged responses.

Conflict as the Engine of Social Learning

Conflicts over these core issues are not, in and of themselves, bad. They perform an important social function by allowing people to challenge ways of living that they see as wrong and propose alternatives that they regard as superior. The goal should not be the suppression of such conflicts (which could lead to catastrophic social tensions), but to ensure that such conflicts are handled as wisely, equitably, and efficiently as possible. Ideally, we want to accept changes that make things better and reject those that do not. Put another way, continuing conflict over these core issues is inevitable and potentially constructive – provided that a wide range of destructive conflict dynamics can be successfully controlled. Identifying and limiting or reversing such destructive dynamics is key to successful complexity-oriented peacebuilding.

For more information see PACS 4500 course materials.

Destructive Conflict Dynamics – And Constructive Responses

In general, the strategy for promoting more constructive conflict focuses on identifying and then limiting the many destructive conflict dynamics that often come into play. We call these dynamics "overlay problems," because they overlay the core issues in ways that undermine prospects for constructive debate. In some cases–particularly simpler "disputes,"-- all the problem consists of is overlay problems. (There isnt really a core.) In these cases, removal of the overlay problems can lay the groundwork for complete resolution. In other cases, however, one must successfully address the "overlay" problem in order to be able to constructively address the underlying core issues. The sections that follow introduce the major types of overlay problems and offer links to resources that more fully describe these problems and potential solutions.


There are a wide range of conflict dynamics that commonly give the parties an image of the overall situation that is so distorted that they are likely to decide to pursue strategies that are unwise (unable to successfully advance their interests), unnecessarily antagonistic (dramatically, and unnecessarily, increasing levels of opposition and the cost of conflict); and/or inequitable (treating others in ways that they would normally be consider unfair). Here, we are not talking about the limited understandings that we all have to live with because we simply dont have the time to really find out whats going on. We are talking about dynamics that systematically bias our image in destructive ways.

In contemporary society, there are a staggering number of destructive conflict dynamics that distort the flow of information in this way. Efforts to limit these distortions are badly needed. While those working in the field have developed a number of very effective techniques addressing these problems, these approaches work best in small-scale, interpersonal, ""table-oriented"" settings. Mass communication-based options for doing the same things at a much larger scale are badly needed. This is an area where creative new ideas could make a major contribution.

Destructive, Partisan Framing

One of the ways in which information is systematically distorted is through partisan "framing." Framing refers to the complex cognitive process of "sense making" through which we organize our observations of our environment into a consistent narrative or worldview that helps us think through the challenges we face and decide how best to respond. Framing is both ubiquitous and essential–there is far too much information available to take it all in. So framing helps us be selective in what we pay attention to and how we interpret it. In conflict situations, however, framing often has perverse effects. People typically frame others who are "like them" and agree with them as "good," "fair," "smart," and "right," while they frame people who are different or think different things as "bad," "unfair," "stupid," "misguided," or even "evil." Other frames determine whether one focuses more on gaining benefits or avoiding loss (gain/loss frames), how one approaches conflict (conflict management frames and process frames), and the amount of risk one is willing to take (risk/information frames). An understanding the way in which the parties frame conflict situations is, therefore, critical to an understanding the conflict problem correctly, and making an accurate assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of alternative conflict handling strategies.

Spreading Disinformation

Disinformation arises because of the intentional efforts of one party to deceive another party, not because of a more benign failure of good faith efforts to understand and communicate with one another. Todays political advertisers and propagandists are adept at using sophisticated models of human perception and communication to foster politically advantageous, but unrealistic and misleading, images of a situation. This commonly leads people to misdirect their responses and actions in ways that undermine, rather than advance, their interests. Balanced efforts to understand and combat the wide range of disinformation strategies in current use are critically needed. However, like unilateral disarmament, the unilateral abandonment of tactical disinformation strategies can severely undermine a partys strategic position.

Disinformation arises because of the intentional efforts of one party to deceive another party, not because of a more benign failure of good faith efforts to understand and communicate with one another. Todays political advertisers and propagandists are adept at using sophisticated models of human perception and communication to foster politically advantageous, but unrealistic and misleading, images of a situation. This commonly leads people to misdirect their responses and actions in ways that undermine, rather than advance, their interests. Balanced efforts to understand and combat the wide range of disinformation strategies in current use are critically needed. However, like unilateral disarmament, the unilateral abandonment of tactical disinformation strategies can severely undermine a partys strategic position.

Flawed Fact-Finding, Interpretation, and Utilization

We live in a society dominated by complex technologies and institutions interacting in an even more complex social and natural environment. The only way in which we can possibly escape our many predicaments is by using our most sophisticated analyses to identify problems, generate possible solutions, determine the strengths and weaknesses associated with each possibility, and then refer the whole matter to an equitable political process for the making of collective value judgments and ultimately, decisions. All of this depends upon fact-finding efforts that are worthy of the publics trust, actually trusted, understood, and sensibly interpreted.


Escalation –often driven by a positive feedback loop--is the most destructive conflict dynamic. It is also fueled by the other conflict dynamics already discussed: distortions in the flow of information, differential framing, and the misinterpretation or misunderstanding of factual or technical information). In its simplest form, perceived or actual provocations on the part of one party generate defensive and, often, offensive responses that are, in turn, seen as provocative. This leads to a continuing cycle of provocation and counter-provocation that intensifies a conflict from the substantive consideration of grievances and strategies for addressing those grievances to direct hostility and hatred only tangentially related to those grievances. Mechanisms that drive this spiral need to be understood, as do strategies for preventing and, if necessary, reversing it.


Escalation dynamics can, in extreme, but also common circumstances, escalate into violent conflicts ranging from interpersonal fights to military confrontations. Strategies for preventing, or at least minimizing violence rely on the cultivation of social norms that delegitimize violence and violent threats as a strategy for advancing ones interests. For cases where these norms fail, various types of collective security measures are required. These measures require society to collectively field police and military forces and charge those forces with the responsibility of physically preventing anyone from successfully using violence and threats of violence to advance their interests. The success of such efforts is obviously dependent on the willingness of these forces to the serve the public interest. There are, unfortunately, numerous cases in which such forces become corrupted and use their power to advance one partys narrow self-interest. There are other cases where no forces are willing to become involved in a peacekeeping capacity, finding it either too risky, expensive, or not in their self-interest or need to do so.

In all of these cases, the presence of violence and violent threats can make it extremely difficult and, often, impossible to wisely and equitably consider the substantive aspects of the core conflict. Instead, the focus turns to fear and the imperatives of self-defense, along with the accompanying desire for vengeance and ultimate victory. In such circumstances, bringing about an end to the violence (or at least limiting the level of violence) is the top priority. In fact, many consider the cessation of violence to be the definition of peace (though others think the peace also requires an end to injustice, oppression, and structural violence.)

Unrightable Wrongs

The divisions at the core of societys big conflicts tend to be long-standing, deeply rooted, and characterized by a belief that one must engage in all-out conflict or face unthinkable defeat. This hostility is, in part, justified by a seemingly endless series "unrightable wrongs" sometimes motivated by undeniable evil, and sometimes by inexcusable actions committed in the heat of a highly-escalated conflict. These wrongs reinforce negative stereotypes and seemingly prove that there is no realistic alternative to total confrontation. Occasionally, these wrongs are "outliers" – extreme actions and statements that are not typical of the larger conflict, but become the focus of attention. To get past this, constructive ways of addressing the genuine wrongs of the past are required, as are methods for dealing with wrongs attributable to destructive escalation dynamics and not inherent evil. South Africas Truth and Reconciliation process has demonstrated one approach to dealing with unrightable wrongs on the past. There are others. The key is finding the approach best tailored to the needs of specific conflicts and then finding the will, the people, and the money to implement such processes.

Poor Relationships

We live in an era that celebrates diversity and group identity. One unfortunate byproduct of this generally laudable trend is that it tends to undermine the sense of shared identity and a collective recognition of the fact that despite our differences, we are all members of the same, larger community – a community that inhabits and depends upon the same social, economic, and environmental "commons." There are numerous conflict situations in which effective strategies are needed for improving relationships and fostering a sense of collective purpose between conflicting groups, within communities, and even globally–we all do inhabit the same small planet and depend on each other for its preservation.

Lack of a Positive, Common Future Vision

Its hard to persuade people to abandon conflict-as-usual practices that they know to be costly and destructive (but that they also know how to play) in favor of some supposedly better alternative, unless they have a clear vision of what that alternative would be and why it would be better. In some long-lasting conflicts, a large number of disputants and other affected citizens have no memory of "peace;" no memory of working cooperatively with "the other side." Thus an important component of any comprehensive conflict strategy is a "visioning" process in which the community comes together to imagine, in considerable detail, how they might be able to move beyond current divisions and figure out how to live together in a spirit of mutual respect, security, compassion, coexistence, and constructive competition. In some cases, the future vision might be one of "divorce" – of a family, a business, or a nation. While such breakups do occur (frequently at the family level, rarely at the national level), they tend to be fraught with problems and are seldom the panacea that disputants hope or expect. So figuring out alternatives to "divorce" and how to make this work is usually of great benefit.

Poor Collaborative Skills / Destructive Competition

While competition can be healthy and constructive–encouraging all sides to strive to do their best--it can also be destructive of relationships and cause serious conflict escalation. While successful competitors often obtain outcomes that are (at least over the short term) apparently better than what they might have gotten through compromise or collaboration, there are risks of unbridled competition as well. First, there is always the risk that, instead of victory, one will suffer a defeat that is almost certainly worse than potential compromises. Based on their biased information and framing, disputants often over-estimate their chances of winning, and under-estimate the probabilities and costs of loss. In addition, unbridled competition can be very costly–the arms race, for instance, essentially bankrupt the U.S.S.R, leading to its dissolution. Unfettered competition also harms relationships, making eventual cooperation all the more difficult. Lastly, losers rarely accept the loss easily–they try to build their power until they can come back and challenge the victor to another power contest. This means victors must continue to "watch their backs" and maintain strength, less their victory be challenged and lost. The alternative approach–limited competition combined with (or replaced with) integrative negotiation and/or collaboration often has higher long-term benefits and usually much reduced costs.

Over-Reliance on Coercive Power or "Power Over"

There are three basic types of power that the parties can use, in varying combinations, to defend and advance their interests–coercive power, exchange power, and integrative power. Usually, when people use the term "power," they think only of coercion–forcing someone to do what you want by threatening them with punishment if they do not. If you have sufficient "clout," this will often work over the short term. But it tends to cause resentment and backlash–people resent being over-powered, and eventually they are likely to try to retaliate and get what they think they (and the other side) deserve.

However, conflict scholars agree that power can come from other sources and dynamics as well. It can come from working together with someone else to accomplish a mutual goal: that is sometimes referred to as "power with" or collaborative power. It can also come from making trades–doing something for someone else if they do something for you. Kenneth Boulding called that exchange power. These latter two types of power, typically, can accomplish more, help resolve conflicts, and do so at reduced cost than coercive power.

The Profiteer, Spoiler, and Machiavelli Problems

Not all third parties have benevolent motivations. There are many who stand to profit from even the most destructive confrontation. It is, unfortunately, in the interests of such individuals to do what they can to perpetuate and, if possible, intensify the conflict. Arms merchants are an obvious example. So are "spoilers"–individuals or groups who disapprove of a peace process or peace agreement, and try (often single-handedly) to derail it by re-igniting anger, fear, and violence. There is also a danger that leaders of advocacy organizations may fall victim to the profiteer problem. Leaders of advocacy organizations have a certain conflict of interest as they can only expect to keep their jobs when their grassroots constituents believe that they are in a fight worth fighting and worth spending real money to prosecute. If the fight is resolved, advocates may lose their jobs. Finding ways to discredit and marginalize spoilers may not stop their immediate destructive behavior, but it can stop it from spreading and doing widespread harm. Bringing potential spoilers into the process, so that they realize they can gain more from cooperating with the peace process than they will likely be able to do by spoiling it is sometimes also a viable option.

The success of efforts to promote more constructive approaches to intractable conflict-related problems also depends upon an ability to successfully deal with parties who are unwilling or unable to participate in such efforts in good faith. Strategies are needed for dealing with people unwilling to forsake "power over" solutions aimed at defeating and oppressing ones enemies in favor of some type of "power-with" alternative that is based on respectful coexistence and constructive competition. Especially difficult are those motivated by Machiavellian ethics who pretend to be reasonable and trustworthy (while plotting to double cross those who might actually trust them). Constructive approaches require an ability to successfully resist such cynical manipulation without becoming so distrustful that they refuse to consider any possible compromise or mutually beneficial agreement.

Poor Governance

As appealing as has consensus, collaboration, and compromise-based decision making might be, the plain fact is that many important policy decisions are not amenable to win-win solutions. In some cases, possible win-win trade-offs and mutually beneficial options may already have been agreed to leaving only win-lose routes through which one party might advance its position and seek redress for perceived injustices. In other cases, one or more of the parties may be committed to all-out victory and scornful of any form of compromise. These situations require a political process capable of making hard choices about who wins and who loses. While such choices can, of course, be made by ruthless tyrants, our goal is to support equitable efforts to make such decisions based on democratic principles. At the national level, governance challenges are considerable. At the international level, they are even more difficult.

Putting it all together: Complexity-Based Conflict Analysis and Peacebuilding

If you are dealing with a relatively simple dispute with a limited number of parties and issues, you might be able to eliminate one or two destructive dynamics (misunderstandings and misinterpretation of facts, for example), and thereby come to a fairly straightforward resolution. In complex, intractable conflicts, however, simple solutions simply are not there. The core issues, typically, are ones that are very deep-rooted and not amenable to compromise. They are often obscured and intensified by numerous destructive dynamics which make the conflicts even more entrenched and destructive.

Our approach to such problems is first to map the conflicts in as much detail as possible, with a goal towards understanding (1) what the underlying, core issues are and (2) what destructive conflict dynamics are making the situation worse. Then, we suggest that teams of people and organizations address as many of the destructive conflict dynamics as possible, peeling away or at least reducing the effect of as many of these factors as possible. That, then provides a more constructive environment for engaging the core issues in a constructive manner.

This is not something that is done quickly, nor is it done by one hero riding in on a white horse. Rather, it is done by thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people who have the "moral imagination" as our colleague John Paul Lederach puts it, to believe that there must be a "better way" for engaging in these conflicts, and they pick out an area in which they can make a difference and start working on that. If enough people do that, at different levels of society, in different institutions, and with different people, the total impact of their work can be effective at transforming destructive conflicts into much more constructive situations.