William Ury's Third Side

Heidi Burgess

Guy M. Burgess

November, 2016

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This video explains William Ury's concept of "the third side" -- the notion that people on both the "inside" and the "outside" can play any of ten different roles which together can help resolve the conflict.  Rather than relying on traditional mediator and other conflict resolution roles, Ury explains how providers, teachers, and bridge-builders can help to prevent conflict; witnesses, referees, and peacekeepers can help contain conflict, and arbiters, equalizers, healers and mediators can all be used to help resolve conflicts.  In very difficult (or intractable) conflicts, all ten of these roles need to be played at once (by many different people) if significant progress is to be made in transforming the conflict into one that is more constructive.

Things to Think About

  • Think about a conflict you care about deeply.
  • What third side roles are currently being played and by whom to try to prevent, resolve, or contain this conflict?
  • Which other roles might be useful for someone to play?  Who might be able to play those roles?
  • Which role(s) might YOU be able to play to help make this conflict more constructive?

Discussion Questions: 

  • What other ideas from Maire Dugan have you found to be particularly useful in your work?  Put another way, what are his core ideas that have influenced the way you work or think about conflict problems?
  • What other people should we include in this "literature review" of the "founders" of the complexity-oriented approach to peacebuilding?  What key ideas of theirs have you found particularly useful or influential?  Can you give us citations to sources that talk about ideas?
  • Discuss both these questions in D12.

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Full Transcript

Hi. This is Heidi Burgess and I want to talk about Bill Ury's notion of the Third Side. He presented this idea in a book with the same name that came out in 1999 and the second edition in 2000, and he also has a website thirdside.williamury.com where he has a lot of information about the Third Side.

The basic idea of the Third Side is that there are 10 different roles that need to be played in any major or intractable conflict in order to bring about sustainable peace. And these roles are grouped into three layers or levels. The first one is the level of prevention. And this is what you want to do when a conflict is just starting and you're trying to prevent it from getting serious or after you've come up with a peace agreement you will use prevention roles to try to stop conflict from re-erupting.

If prevention doesn't work by itself, you then need any of four and most likely all four resolution roles, which include mediator, arbiter, equalizer, and healer. I didn't say before, but I should have, that the prevention roles are provider, teacher, and bridge builder. And if resolution doesn't work, then you're left with the three containment roles-- witness, referee, and peacekeeper.

In very difficult intractable conflicts, Ury says that you need all 10 roles working at once in order to be able to bring about effective peace making and peacebuilding. Let's look at each one of these roles in a little more detail.

First, the prevention roles. Providers share resources and knowledge. They give others a sense of security, and most importantly, they help ensure that fundamental human needs are met. Now, you may remember from an earlier video that John Burton and other human needs theorist argue that when basic human need such as security or identity are threatened, that's a recipe for what John Burton called deep rooted and we call intractable conflicts.

So if providers can help provide those basic human needs-- be they things shown in this picture where interaction is engaged in humanitarian assistance and simply providing food, water, and shelter. Providers can also provide a sense of security or secure identity that will do a lot to reduce the intensity of a conflict and make it less likely to escalate further.

The next prevention role is bridge builders. Bridge builders bring people together to help establish personal relationships. Bill Ury, just like John Paul Lederach, focuses on the centrality of relationships and conflicts. And if you can turn people who are stereotyped, who are seen as non-human, seen as simply the enemy, into real live people, who if you get to know them, you'll figure out are a lot like you, that can go a long way towards deescalating conflict and working towards peace.

This picture here talks about what I know as Neve Shalom or the Arab name for it-- and I don't know if I'm pronouncing this right is Wahat as-Salam. This is a school that is in a village that is equidistant from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel that has Palestinians and Israeli Jews living together and going to school together and humanizing each other. And the people who set up the school and have made it possible for many, many years, are acting as bridge builders and have done a great deal in that community to try to deescalate the conflict at least among some of the people.

The last prevention role is teacher. Sometimes people really don't know any alternative to fighting. They don't see any way to get their needs met without violence. So teachers teach basic conflict resolution skills, they teach tolerance and respect, they delegitimize violence, and they expose people to a practical problem-solving skills.

The picture here is an online trainer's manual for training youth in Sudan on peace-building written by Charlotte Hulley. And it's available and many others like it are available on the web. You can see the url here and also in the transcript. So if you can defuse a conflict enough with the teacher role, the bridge builder role, and the provider role, you may not end up with an intractable conflict. But if you do, you need to move on to the four resolution roles.

The first resolution role is equalizer. When you have a very unbalanced power situation, it's very difficult to negotiate a lasting settlement because the more powerful party will undoubtedly prevail. The less powerful party will maintain its grievances and eventually the conflict is likely to re-arise. Equalizers are one way to avoid this. They empower the weak and the unrepresented so that they can negotiate a fair resolution. This involves bringing the powerful groups to the table, helping international conflicts to build collaborative democracies, and supporting such things as nonviolent action as opposed to violence.

The picture here is taken from a video that was produced by New York Times correspondent Nick Kristof that was called Waiting for Gandhi. And it was about how some Palestinians were being trained to use nonviolence and were trying to use nonviolence in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to try to persuade Israel to treat them differently, and if not resolve, transform that conflict into something more constructive.

A second resolution role is the much more common one that we all know about, which is mediators. Here's a picture of Jimmy Carter at the end of the Camp David negotiations with Sadat and Begin. Mediators bring the parties to the table, they facilitate communication, and they help people search for and reach a mutually satisfactory solution. While mediators can suggest ideas, and of course, Jimmy Carter suggested many, they cannot make the decision. The decision has to be made by the disputants themselves.

This is in contrast to arbiters or more commonly called arbitrators who are neutral third parties just like mediators are, but arbiters listen to the arguments, they examine the facts, and then they make a decision. So justices in any sort of court are arbiters. Alternative dispute resolution arbitrators are also arbiters. Parents of squabbling kids are arbiters. They are the people who make the decision, and ideally, after the decision is made, the conflict will be resolved. The question is whether the decision is legitimate and whether the constituents of the disputants will follow the decision that is made. Sometimes they do. Often they do not.

The last resolution role is healer. Healers help parties overcome their feelings of anger, fear, humiliation, insecurity and grief. And they do so by listening and acknowledging the pain and the harms done, encouraging apologies and forgiveness, and helping make repairs for the lasting harms. An example of this was the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which encouraged telling of stories, listening to those stories, and encouraging apology and forgiveness, and at times making reparations.

These four roles equalizers, mediators, arbiters, and healers sometimes will be enough to resolve the conflict. But in true intractable conflicts they are not. In this case, you need the last three roles-- the containment roles.

These include witnesses, who watch out for early warning signals of conflict escalation. They patrol and report violence, and they call attention to potential violence to other community members who they then hope will do something. So they don't act themselves to stop the violence, they just watch.

This picture here is a very moving story of a peace builder Ryan Boyette, who was profiled again by Nick Kristof. He was an American who went to do peacebuilding in the Nuba mountains of Sudan, ended up marrying a Sudanese woman and staying there throughout the civil war and trying to protect the people of the Nuba mountains from violence that was erupting all around them. So he watched and witnessed and let the West know about what was going on in the Nuba mountains and brought light to what could have been—and is--a terrible tragedy. But it could have been a lot worse if nobody had known about what was going on.

A second containment role is referee. Referees establish rules for fair fighting. They take away dangerous weapons and they strengthen defenses. The International Campaign to Ban Land mines, which actually created the land mine treaty and has gotten rid of land mines in large numbers of places around the world is a great example of referees doing very important work.

And the last containment role is a better known one of peacekeepers, who provide protection standing in between the warring parties and forcing the peace physically and preempting violence before it starts.

Oftentimes in severe conflicts, all 10 of these roles are needed simultaneously. And this is what Ury’s take is on systemic peacebuilding-- combining all 10 roles-- not organizing them, not directing them like you would do with a complicated situation, but having all 10 roles played out simultaneously, building on each other, creating synergies like Louise Diamond talked about in her notion of multi-track diplomacy. This is another take on that idea. 

Referenced Resources

William Ury.  The Third Side. Penguin. 2000.

Thirdside Website:  http://thirdside.williamury.com/

See also: The Third Side section on the BI Knowledge Base:

Picture Credits

Slide 8:  Camp David.  See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 11: South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission Website:  http://www.justice.gov.za/Trc/

Slide 13: Blue helmets: Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/un_photo/12366883915. Attribution: United Nations. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/).  UNFICYP (UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus) source: https://da.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Peacekeeping_Force_in_Cypru... attribution: By Jens Voigt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons