Third Siders

William L. Ury

Originally Published December, 2003; Current Implications section added by Heidi Burgess in April 2017.


MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

Bill Ury's book The Third Side and the website, organization, and movement he created after it was published is needed now, it seems, more than ever.  In the U.S., Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, people seem to be increasingly at odds with their fellow countrymen and women. In the United States the level of hate, fear, and polarization hasn't been seen in decades, perhaps a more than a century, going back, perhaps, to the civil war.More...

"When spider webs unite, they can halt even a lion." -- African proverb

No more critical challenge faces each of us, and all of us together, than how to live together in a world of differences. So much depends on our ability to handle our conflicts peacefully -- our happiness at home, our performance at work, the livability of our communities, and, in this age of mass destruction, the survival of our species.

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What is the Third Side?

The Third Side offers a promising new way to look at the conflicts around us. The Third Side is the community -- us -- in action protecting our most precious interests in safety and well-being. It suggests 10 practical roles any of us can play on a daily basis to stop destructive fighting in our families, at work, in our schools, and in the world. Each of our individual actions is like a single spider web, fragile perhaps but, when united with others, capable of halting the lion of war. Although the Third Side is in its infancy in our modern-day societies, it has been used effectively by simpler cultures for millennia to reduce violence and promote dialogue.

Unlike the ultimate arbiter in the form of a king or authoritarian state, the third side is not a transcendent individual or institution who dominates all, but rather the emergent will of the community. It is an impulse that arises from the vital relationships linking each member and every other member of the community.

Additional insights into third siders are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Using the power of peers.

The third side possesses the power of peer pressure and the force of public opinion. It is people power. It uses the power of persuasion. It influences the parties primarily through an appeal to their interests and to community norms. [2] In every conflict, there usually exists not just one possible third party but a multitude. Individually, we may not be able to intervene effectively, but collectively we are potentially more powerful than any two conflicting parties. Organizing ourselves into a coalition, we can balance the power between the parties and protect the weaker one.

From a perspective of common ground. While most issues in contention are presented as having just two sides, pro and con, there usually exists a third. From this third perspective, the truth of each competing point of view can be appreciated. Shared interests often come to loom larger than the differences. People remember that they all, in the end, belong to the same extended community.

Supporting a process of dialogue and nonviolence. Silently or loudly, the Third Side says "No" to violence and "Yes" to dialogue. Third siders urge disputants to sit down and talk out their differences respectfully. They focus, in other words, on the process. To them, how people handle their differences is just as important as what outcome they reach.

Aiming for a product of a "triple win." Third siders strive for a resolution that satisfies the legitimate needs of the parties and at the same time meets the needs of the wider community. The goal of the third side is, in other words, a "triple win."

Who are the Third Siders?

The Third Side is made up of both insiders, such as friends, family, and even the parties themselves, who are in turn actively supported by outsiders, such as neighbors, neutrals, and bystanders.

What are the roles we can play?

10 Roles Of The Third Side

Conflict does not come out of nowhere but proceeds from latent tension, develops into overt conflict, erupts into power struggle, and from there crosses the threshold of destructive conflict and violence. As third siders, our aim is not to suppress conflict altogether but simply to keep the trajectory of escalation below this threshold.

We have at least three major opportunities to channel the conflict's vertical momentum, leading to destruction, into a horizontal impulse, leading to constructive change.

The first is to prevent destructive conflict from emerging in the first place by addressing latent tensions. The second is to resolve any overt conflicts which do develop. The third is to contain any escalating power struggles that temporarily escape resolution. What is not prevented is resolved; and what is not resolved is contained. The motto of the Third Side is thus: "Contain if necessary, resolve if possible, best of all prevent."

Contain if necessary, resolve if possible, best of all prevent.

Prevention Roles

The Provider - Enabling People to Meet Their Needs

Conflict usually arises in the first place from frustrated needs, like love and respect. Frustration leads people to bully others, to use violence, and to grab someone else's things. The most basic human needs include food (and other necessities for living), safety, identity, and freedom. If we as third siders can help people address one or more of these four needs we can avert destructive conflict. This is the role of the Provider.

  • Share resources, share knowledge
  • Give others a sense of security
  • Offer respect
  • Empower others[3]

Although a more thorough description of each of these activities is beyond the scope of this essay, by clicking on each activity (above and below) more detail can be found at

The Teacher - Giving People Skills to Handle Conflict

Sometimes people fight simply because they know no other way to react when a need is frustrated and a serious difference arises. By helping people learn new values, perspectives and skills, we as Teachers can show them a better way to deal with differences.

  • Delegitimize violence[4]
  • Teach tolerance[5]
  • Teach joint problem-solving

The Bridge-Builder -- Forging Relationships Across Lines of Conflict

Good relationships are key to preventing conflict. Anyone can help build bridging relationships across natural divides. A relationship operates like savings in the bank; whenever an issue arises, the parties can dip into their account of goodwill to help deal with it. Often not a discrete activity, bridge-building takes place all around us, sometimes without us even perceiving it -- at family meals, on school projects, in business transactions, and at neighborhood meetings.

  • Creating cross-cutting ties
  • Develop joint projects[6]
  • Foster genuine dialogue[7]

The Mediator - Reconciling Conflicting Interests

At the core of conflict are often conflicting interests. As mediators, we can help reconcile the parties' interests. The Mediator does not seek to determine who is right and who is wrong, but rather tries to get to the core of the dispute and help the parties resolve it. We may not think of it as mediation, but that is what we are doing whenever we listen attentively to people in dispute, when we ask them about what they really want, when we suggest possible approaches, and when we urge them to think hard about the costs of not reaching agreement.

  • Everyone's a mediator
  • Bring the parties to the table
  • Facilitate communication
  • Help people search for a solution

The Arbiter - Determining Disputed Rights

Sometimes mediation is not enough to resolve a dispute or is not appropriate because basic rights are being violated. Whereas a mediator can only suggest a solution, an arbiter can decide what is right. The arbiter is a familiar role, embodied in the judge in the courtroom or the arbitrator in a work setting. More informally, the arbiter is the teacher deciding a dispute among two quarreling students, the parent ruling on a matter involving two children, or the manager determining an issue among two employees. In this sense, we are all potential arbiters.

  • Replace destructive conflict
  • Promote justice[8]
  • Encourage negotiation[9]

The Equalizer - Democratizing Power

Every conflict takes place within the larger context of power. Imbalance of power often leads to abuse and injustice. The strong refuse to negotiate with the weak or to submit their dispute to mediation or arbitration -- why should they, the strong think, when they can win? This is where the Equalizer has a contribution to make. Each of us holds a packet of power, a measure of influence over the parties around us. Individually, our influence may be small, but collectively, it can be considerable. We are capable of empowering the weak and the unrepresented so that they can negotiate a fair and mutually satisfactory resolution.

  • Help bring the powerful to the table
  • Build collaborative democracy
  • Support nonviolent action[10]

The Healer - Repairing Injured Relationships

At the core of many conflicts lie emotions -- anger, fear, humiliation, hatred, insecurity, and grief. The wounds may run deep. Even if a conflict appears resolved after a process of mediation, adjudication, or voting, the wounds may remain and, with them, the danger that the conflict could recur. A conflict cannot be considered fully resolved until the injured relationships have begun to heal. The role of the Healer is to assist in this process.

  • Create the right climate
  • Listen and acknowledge[11]
  • Encourage apology[12]

The Witness - Paying Attention to Escalation

Destructive conflict does not just break out but escalates through different stages, from tension to overt conflict to violence. By watching carefully, the witness can detect warning signals, which, if acted on, can prevent escalation of conflict and even save lives. A witness can also speak up to persuade the parties to cease fighting and sound the alarm to call the attention of other Thirdsiders who can intervene as mediators, peacekeepers, or other witnesses.

  • Watch out for early warning signals
  • Go on patrol
  • Speak out
  • Get help fast

The Referee -- Setting Limits to Fighting

Some fighting can be salutary. Fighting can serve the function of clearing the air and bringing suppressed problems into sharp focus.[13] If and when people do fight, it is important to reduce the harm. That is the role of the referee, who sets limits on fighting. Parents know this role well: "Pillows are OK, but fists are not." "No blows above the neck or below the belt." As referees, we can change the way people fight, replacing destructive weapons and methods with substantially less destructive ones.

  • Establish rules for fair fighting
  • Remove offensive arms[14]
  • Strengthen defenses - nonoffensively

The Peacekeeper - Providing Protection

When the rules are broken and the limits on fighting exceeded, the community needs to employ the minimally forceful measures necessary to stop harmful conflict in its tracks. The role of Peacekeepers need not be limited to specialists like the police and U.N. Peacekeepers, it is a community function that anyone may be called upon to play. When two children fight, adults can step in the middle and, if necessary, physically pull the two apart. The best peacekeepers never fight. They never fight because they don't need to. They accomplish their ends by intervening early and using persuasion.

  • Interpose between parties
  • Enforce the peace
  • Preempt violence before it starts

What can I do to help?

Friends for life don't let friends fight.

The Third Side is us. As simple societies like the Semai have long recognized, it is everyone's responsibility to prevent harmful conflict. "You have to help resolve a dispute," one Semai explained. "If you don't intervene and something happens between the two disputants, you are accountable." "Friends for life don't let friends fight" is the slogan of a successful media campaign against violence in Boston. That could be the motto of the Third Side.

We may not think of ourselves as third parties -- in fact we generally don't. Yet each of us has the opportunity to serve as a third party in the conflicts around us - either as outsiders or as insiders. We constitute the family, the friends, the colleagues, the neighbors, the onlookers, the witnesses. Even when no third party is present, each of us has the opportunity to mediate our own disputes by taking the Third Side.

In short, the Third Side is not some mysterious or special other. It is us. The missing alternative to force and domination is in our hands.

Steps for Mobilizing the Third Side

Getting to peace is rarely easy, but there are some simple steps any of us can take to begin to mobilize the Third Side:

1. Change the story. The principal obstacle to preventing destructive conflict lies in our minds - in the fatalistic beliefs that discourage people from even trying. The story that humans have always warred, and always will, is spread unchallenged from person to person and from parent to child. It is time, in our everyday conversations, to question and refute this story and its embedded assumptions about human nature. It is time to give our children -- and ourselves -- a more accurate and more positive picture of our past and our future prospects. From realistic hope springs action.

2. Learn some skills. "Why do you feel this way?" said the student recently trained in conflict resolution to the youth pointing a gun at his head at a nighttime basketball game, "Don't you understand that if anything happens to me, you'll get life?" The youth put the gun away.

Each of us can benefit from honing our joint problem-solving and conflict resolution skills. There are many ways: take a class, read a book, or get some coaching from a friend or colleague. The key lies in practice; the more, the better. As with sports, no matter how skilled you already are, there always remains room for improvement.

3. Start close to home. "You have to remember all the steps," reports third-grade mediator Ian Morton, "but when it's over, it makes you feel very happy to help a friend." We don't need to look far to find a place to practice our third sider skills. Daily occasions abound at home among our family and friends, at school, at work among our colleagues, and in the neighborhood. It may be to listen and hear the parties out. It may be to facilitate dialogue between those who do not understand one another. It may be to use peer pressure to urge constructive resolution. Each of us has a role to play.

4. Mediate your own disputes. "This one kid came up to me and was pushing me," recalls fifth-grader Alexandria Ritch, "and I said 'Don't push me.' He said, 'What are you going to do about it, hit me?' And I said, 'I would never hurt you. I'm a mediator, and hitting others isn't right.' He started listening to me. . . and then he said he was sorry and we got on the bus. I felt better because I was being a bigger person."

Our own disputes often prove the most challenging. It may not be easy to gain perspective, yet, if we can, each of the 10 Thirdsider roles is available to us. We can attempt to build bridges, heal wounds, and resolve our differences by ourselves. In the absence of a mediator, we can, in effect, mediate our own dispute. If our efforts falter, we can actively seek the help of others, mobilizing the Third Side around us.[15]

5. Do what you do best. As you look around and wonder how you can contribute to the wider community, you don't need to start from scratch. Instead, begin with what you already do and add an extra third-side dimension. Parents can help their children learn how to deal with conflicts constructively. A teacher can weave a conflict resolution strand into the subject matter, whether it is history, social studies, or languages. A minister can help people apologize and forgive. A lawyer can facilitate the creative resolution of conflicts by practicing "collaborative lawyering" or mediation. A journalist can spotlight emergent conflicts for public attention. A police officer can mediate domestic disputes informally. Some of us may have special talents as teachers, others as mediators, and still others as peacekeepers. The key is to identify your distinctive competence and incorporate it into what you do every day.[16]

6. Volunteer your services. "In over two hundred cases (I mediated), I can think of only two that bogged down," says 74-year-old volunteer community mediator Gail Robertson, speaking of her experience over the past 10 years. "If they're willing to listen, speak, and follow the process, it works."

Like Gail Robertson, anyone of us can volunteer our time and skills. Many communities have neighborhood justice centers that rely on volunteer mediators and staff. Schools have peer mediation programs. You can volunteer as a peer juror, a neighborhood peace officer, or as a mentor or sports coach for needy teens. You can also teach others in the community about joint problem-solving and conflict resolution. Further a field, there exist volunteer opportunities as election monitor or humanitarian aid worker in conflicted societies. All these roles help build a strong Third Side.

7. Fill a missing role. The firm's strategic planning committee was paralyzed. Although the vice presidents disagreed with the senior vice president for administration, none of them wanted to confront him directly, nor did they intend to implement what he proposed. Finally Olivia Lane spoke up in exasperation, pointing out how they were skirting the real issues. As manager of executive training and development, she was not formally a member of the committee, but informally she had spent a lot of time listening individually to each of the participants. Once she brought the issues out in the open, the committee members began discussing them in earnest. For follow-up sessions, the committee appointed Lane as official facilitator. The result: the first strategic plan ever implemented at the firm.

Just as Olivia Lane spotted the conflicting interests and surfaced them as an informal mediator, so each of us can identify the causes of escalation around us and then play - or find someone else to play - the appropriate roles that address them. In this way, safety net by safety net, we can construct a comprehensive system for transforming conflict.

8. Create a winning alliance. "The deal we cut [with the police] was, 'Take this one off the streets, we can deal with him in prison ministry,'" explained the Reverend Jeffrey Brown. The police, in turn, depend on the ministers to work with the more winnable kids. "Right now," said the Reverend Eugene Rivers, "any cop in Dorchester can dump a kid off in Baker House [a neighborhood recreation center and parish house run by Rivers] and say, 'Look, I'm gonna crack this kid's skull, take him.' So we have taken the pressure off the police to play heavies." The ministers and the police have created a winning alliance against teenage violence.

Don't fall into the trap of thinking you need to do it all yourself. Recruit help. Take a lesson from the Bushmen and speak to all the disputants' friends and relatives. Keep on strengthening the Third Side until it becomes more powerful than any aggressor.

9. Urge your organization to take the Third Side. We all belong to organizations - businesses, professional associations, unions, civic clubs, cultural affinity groups, or political parties - that can greatly magnify our Thirdsider efforts. We can leverage our membership, turning our organizations into Thirdsiders. On the issues that divide the wider community, our organizations can take a stand for constructive discussion. They can serve as Bridge-Builders, offering public forums for dialogue, or as Equalizers, providing weaker parties with information and support.

10. Support the Third Side in the wider community. "As long as we the citizens let [negative political campaigning] be effective, it will continue," says Becky Cain of the League of Women Voters. "We are the only ones with the power to stop it." Even where you are unable to assume a direct role in the wider conflicts surrounding us, you can still lend your voice to the Third Side. You can speak out and cast your vote against harmful conflict and violence. When even a single person takes a stand, the ripple effect can result in surprising change.

11. Help build Third Sider institutions. Programs and institutions are the backbone of the Third Side. Each of us can champion the teaching of conflict resolution and tolerance to children of all ages as a standard part of the school curriculum. We can promote the establishment of community mediation centers. In the wider world, we can support the development of international mediation services, the strengthening of the International Criminal Court, and the creation of standing peacekeeping units that can act promptly to prevent genocide and war.

12. Help create a social movement. For some, serving as part of the Third Side may mean nothing more than putting a new label on what they have been doing all the time. For others, it may mean engaging in new activities. For all, it may mean a new awareness of themselves as part of the larger human community engaged in the historic project of learning to live and work together. Just as the environmental movement addresses the relationship between human beings and nature, so a coexistence movement would deal with the relationship between human beings and other humans. In coalition with other great social movements like those for human rights, women's rights, and democracy, such a movement could help raise awareness and mobilize a powerful Third Side.

Such a movement needs a new vocabulary. Imagine a prefix like "co" (from the Latin "with") starting to be attached to names in the way that "eco" is for environmental terms. "Co-democracy" would mean the practice of democracy through consensus-building and collaboration rather than by destructive combat. "Co-history" would mean the history of how humans have gotten along together. "Co-culture" would mean a culture of conflict resolution and cooperation.

We know that the Third Side can work because it already does - some of the time. In Kenneth Boulding's words, "what exists is possible." The task remaining is to take the success stories and make them the norm. Plenty of obstacles remain but none are insurmountable. There is in fact no good reason why we cannot get to peace.

Current Implications

Bill Ury's book The Third Side and the website, organization, and movement he created after it was published is needed now, it seems, more than ever.  In the U.S., Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, people seem to be increasingly at odds with their fellow countrymen and women. In the United States the level of hate, fear, and polarization hasn't been seen in decades, perhaps a more than a century, going back, perhaps, to the civil war.  There are even those who are predicting we could have a second civil war.

But as Ury points out, conflict of that depth is both avoidable and resolvable--in fact he is more bullish on the notion of resolution than are many of his colleagues.  But he agrees that resolution is not easy.  As we said in the last Conflict Fundamentals post on Conflict Parties, it takes many people playing many different roles to resolve or transform deeply-rooted and intractable conflicts. While Ury's Third Siders were introduced in the "Parties" essay, this essay fleshes each role out in greater detail.  

We encourage readers to consider which role(s) they might be able to play to make the conflicts they are involved in less destructive.

--Heidi Burgess   April 2017.

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[1] This essay is a condensation of, which itself is a condensation and "webification" of the book The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop by William Ury (Penguin 2000). It is reprinted here with the permission of William Ury. This essay has many links in it, some of which go to more detailed pages published on, and others of which go to associated essays on Beyond Intractability

[2] See also the essay on integrative power.

[3] See also the empowerment essay in BeyondIntractability.

[4] See the nonviolence essay in Beyond Intractability

[5] See the tolerance essay in Beyond Intractability

[6] See the BeyondIntractability essay on joint projects for details.

[7] See the essay on dialogue in Beyond Intractability

[8] See the set of essays on justice in Beyond Intractability for details.

[9] See the set of essays on negotiation in Beyond Intractability for details.

[10] See the nonviolence essay in Beyond Intractability for details.

[11] See the essays on empathic listening and recognition for details.

[12] See the essay on apology and forgiveness for details.

[13] See the BeyondIntractability essay on Benefits of Conflict.

[14] See  the essay on Arms Control in

[15] See also the essays on mediators and mediation in

[16] See also the essays on educators, mediators, and peacekeepers.

Use the following to cite this article:
Ury, William L.. "Third Siders." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: December 2003 <>.

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