Understanding Conflict Resolution: Breaking Down Theories and Approaches

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Understanding Conflict Resolution: Breaking Down Theories and Approaches

Tuncay Unal, PhD

Global Center for Security Studies

Conflict resolution is a multidisciplinary field that draws upon various theoretical and practical insights to understand, address, and manage conflicts effectively. As accepted by many, in today’s globalized world, where interdependence and diversity become increasingly prevalent, effective conflict resolution is paramount for maintaining peace, stability, and social justice. This academic discipline is informed by political science, sociology, psychology, law, and communication studies, offering a rich understanding of perspectives on how conflicts emerge, escalate, and can be resolved or transformed.

Essential subjects within conflict resolution embrace understanding different kinds of conflicts and their characteristics, the mechanics of conflict approaches to negotiation, the methods of mediation, initiatives in building peace, and the importance of communication in managing conflicts. The discipline of conflict resolution extends beyond theoretical knowledge, offering practical applications that provide individuals with the necessary skills and techniques for effectively managing conflicts, whether in personal or professional settings (Lederach, J. P., 1997). Morton, Coleman & Marcus (2014) emphasize the importance of cooperative, win-win solutions to conflicts and reject destructive tactics like coercion or intimidation.

As discussed by Ury along with Fisher and Patton (2011); everyone wants to participate in decisions that affect them, and fewer people will accept other people’s dictated decisions (pg. 6). So instead of standard strategies, they developed the concept of “principled negotiation”. According to their concept, conflict resolution should include the following:

  1. Focus on Interests, Not Positions: Emphasizes understanding the underlying interests and needs of all parties involved in a conflict rather than focusing on their initial positions or demands. Identifying common interests will help conflicting parties to find mutually beneficial solutions.
  2. Separate People from the Problem: Personal relationships should be kept separate from substantive issues. This approach helps prevent conflicts from becoming personal and controversial.
  3. Generate Options for Mutual Gain: Multiple options should be discussed to satisfy both parties’ interests. This creative exploration of possibilities can lead to innovative solutions that were not initially apparent.
  4. Insist on Using Objective Criteria: Using objective standards and criteria as the basis for decision-making in negotiations helps in reaching fair agreements and avoids biased judgments.
  5. Develop the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA): The concept of BATNA is the best option a party has if negotiations fail. Knowing one’s BATNA gives them influence in negotiations and clarity on when to walk away from a bad deal.

In addition to Ury et al., Follett (2013) also suggests additional principles for conflict resolution. To her, this means integrating differing interests rather than domination, understanding the desires and needs of all parties involved in a conflict, and using collective power to achieve goals rather than one party exerting power over another.

Resolving long-standing and violent social conflicts typically follows one of two main approaches. In the first approach, conflicting parties engage in direct discussions about their contentious issues. Through these discussions, they strive to settle by bargaining and accommodating their competing objectives. This settlement aims to sufficiently meet their fundamental interests, making it acceptable and sustainable for leaders and followers. However, this negotiation process is often intricate and unstable, prone to frequent and severe breakdowns, as evidenced in regions like the Basque country and Sri Lanka. Due to its delicate nature, directly negotiated bilateral settlements are relatively uncommon. More commonly, parties entrenched in prolonged conflicts require external help to initiate, conduct, and successfully complete what is popularly known as a ‘peace process’. Therefore, what is typically perceived as a bilateral negotiation often transforms into a trilateral one with the introduction of a third party. This third party acts as an intermediary, facilitator, or mediator in the process (Mitchell & Avruch, 2013).

The initiation of a peace process is inherently fragile and typically unfolds amidst ongoing violence and instability. Transformations at a systemic level, changes in economic, ideological, or strategic domains, can significantly influence establishing conditions favourable to a sustainable peace process (Darby & Mac Ginty, 2003).

Critics argue that peace interventions are often imposed from the top down, are overly technical, and neglect the emotional aspects of conflict, such as trust, reconciliation, and perceptions between groups. These interventions are also criticized for failing to distribute the benefits of peace widely and lacking long-term viability. In reaction to these perceived shortcomings in numerous peace processes, NGOs, international entities, and local communities increasingly focus on local, traditional, or customary peacebuilding methods. Proponents of these methods contend that they offer a more inclusive, culturally sensitive, cost-effective, and enduring approach to peacemaking. Essentially, traditional and local peacemaking methods could effectively address the limitations of the more ‘standard’ peacebuilding strategies adopted by major nations, international organizations, and global financial bodies since 1990. Consequently, there’s a growing interest in exploring and utilizing traditional and indigenous approaches to peacemaking (Ginty, 2010).

            Deutsch, Coleman and Marcus (2013) provided an in-depth and multifaceted exploration of conflict resolution. They skillfully merged theoretical understanding with practical approaches and methods. According to their viewpoint, the following key aspects are crucial:

  1. Understanding Conflict Dynamics: Lederach (2015) discusses that conflict requires different resolution strategies. Understanding the dynamics allows mediators and involved parties to tailor their approaches accordingly. Knowledge of conflict dynamics allows for predicting how conflicts might escalate or de-escalate. This is vital in preventing conflicts from spiralling out of control (Ury, Fisher & Patton, 2011).
  2. Cooperative Approaches: Morton (1973) emphasizes that cooperative approaches focus on finding mutually beneficial solutions, leading to more constructive and sustainable outcomes in conflict resolution. To Lederach (2005) cooperative approaches help build and maintain positive relationships between conflicting parties.
  3. Effective Communication: Deutsch, Coleman and Marcus (2013) state that poor communication can lead to misunderstanding and escalate conflicts. The authors stress the need for open, empathetic, and honest dialogue to understand different perspectives and find common ground.
  4. Problem-Solving Techniques: Determining mutual interests, devising inventive resolutions, and reaching equitable agreements constitute crucial components of problem-solving strategies (Ury W., Patton B. and Fisher R. 2011).
  5. Psychological Factors: Psychological factors are pivotal in conflict resolution, influencing how individuals perceive, react to, and engage in conflicts. These factors include emotions, perceptions, attitudes, communication styles, and cognitive biases (Mayer, 2010).
  6. Conflict Intervention: Conflict intervention involves external actions taken to manage, reduce, or resolve a conflict. This intervention can take various forms, such as mediation, arbitration, facilitation, or peacekeeping, depending on the nature and scope of the conflict (Moore, 2014).
  7. Application Across Contexts: Applying conflict resolution in various settings necessitates customising principles and strategies to suit different environments and circumstances. Such adaptability is essential, given that conflicts emerge in various contexts, each distinct in its characteristics and demands (Stone, Patton & Heen, 2023).
  8. Ethical Considerations: Ethical considerations are crucial in conflict resolution to guarantee fairness, respect, and integrity of the process. They serve as guiding principles for practitioners in their behaviour and decision-making, which is key in establishing trust and credibility throughout the resolution process (Moore, 2014).

In conclusion, conflict resolution is a multifaceted field crucial in today’s interconnected and diverse world. It not only offers theoretical insights from various disciplines like political science, sociology, psychology, law, and communication studies but also practical skills and strategies essential for effective conflict management in different scenarios. Having a roadmap for conflict resolution is paramount for several reasons, such as having a structured approach, clarity and focus, effective resolution, predictability and stability, facilitating communication and collaboration, adaptability and learning. 


Christopher R. Mitchell, Kevin Avruch (2013). Conflict Resolution and Human Needs. Linking Theory and Practice. Routledge Studies in Peace and Conflict Resolution pg 94

Darby, J. & Ginty R. M. (Eds) (2008). Contemporary Peace Making: Conflict, Violence and Peace Process. Springer

Deutsch M., Coleman P. T. and Marcus E. C. (2014). The Handbook of conflict resolution (3rd ed.). John Wiley & Sons, Inc., San Francisco, CA

Deutsch, M. (1973). The resolution of conflict: Constructive and destructive processes. American Behavioral Scientist17(2), 248-248.

Follett, M. P. (November 2013). Creative Experience. Martino Fine Books.

Mac Ginty, R. (2010). No war, no peace: Why so many peace processes fail to deliver peace. International Politics, 47, 145-162.

Mayer, B. S. (2010). The dynamics of conflict resolution: A practitioner’s guide. John Wiley & Sons.

Moore, C. W. (2014). The mediation process: Practical strategies for resolving conflict. John Wiley & Sons.

Lederach, J. P. (1997). Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies, U.S. Institute of Peace, 1997

Lederach, J. P. (2005). The moral imagination: The art and soul of building peace. Oxford University Press.

Lederach, J. (2015). Little book of conflict transformation: Clear articulation of the guiding principles by a pioneer in the field. Simon and Schuster.

Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (2023). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. Penguin.

Ury W., Patton B. and Fisher R. (2011). Getting to YES: Negotiating an agreement without giving in. Random House Business Books.

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