Online Toolkit

Part 4 - Key Concepts, Models, and Tools


Conflict occurs when people's interests or different points of view clash. They may both want the same thing (such as the same tree that happened to be in the middle of their backyard), or they may want to do mutually incompatible things (two people want to stay together during a trip, but one wants to go to museums while the other wants to go to the beach). Our working definition of conflict is a situation in which two or more parties (however structured or defined) have, or think they have, incompatible goals;[88] that is, goals which, apparently, cannot be simultaneously achieved.

Conflict can happen at any level. It can be between two people, families and communities; or at regional, national and international levels.[89]

People have many pre-conceptions about conflict, most of which are negative. Although conflict can have negative manifestations, conflict in itself is not negative. Conflicts are a natural and necessary part of life. No one goes through life without them. The challenge is how to manage or transform them.

Some seem to think that the best way to deal with conflict is to simply avoid it. A conflict is often seen to have a wide range of negative effects on the individuals involved, their relationship and their society in general. However, conflict does not necessarily have to be negative. In fact, conflicts can also mean opportunities for change and understanding. If conflicts are handled constructively, they can result in positive change, new possibilities and increased understanding and development.

The analysis, prevention, management or resolution of conflicts does not aim at the elimination of conflict, and even less, at the elimination of opposing interests. The aim is to search for different forms of addressing conflict in a non-violent way, and to an extent that will be accepted by all parties involved.[90]

It is the goal of this toolkit to provide methods and practical ways of dealing with conflict, in a way that can bring about positive changes.

Conflict Stages

Conflict and peace are dynamic. They are connected processes that change and evolve over time. When supposedly competing goals emerge they lead to levels of conflict that will vary in the degree of co-operation and opposition. These levels of interaction can be arranged along a continuum of growth and decline. In the practical field, this means that awareness of its various developmental stages is a pre-requisite in handling conflicts successfully. It is required to identify, not just the conflict issue, but how far it has developed, so it can possibly be solved before becoming worse. The diagram below, shows the most commonly used stages for describing a conflict:

Source: Fisher, Simon et. al., Working With Conflict. Skills and Strategies for Action, Responding to Conflict, London: Zed Books 2000, p. 19

Pre-Conflict: This is the period when there is an incompatibility of goals between two or more parties, which could lead to open conflict. The conflict is hidden from general view, although one or more parties are likely to be aware of the potential for confrontation. There may be tension in relationships between the parties and/or a desire to avoid contact with each other at this stage.[91]

Confrontation: At this stage the conflict has become more open. One or both parties start to feel that a confrontation will occur. At this point, each party may be gathering its resources, and perhaps finding allies, with the expectation of increasing confrontation and violence. Relationships between them become very strained, leading to a polarization between the supporters of each side.

Crisis: This is the peak of the conflict, when the tension and/or violence is most intense. In a large-scale conflict, this is the period of war, when people on all sides are being killed. Normal communication has largely ceased. Public statements tend to be in the form of accusations made against the other.

Outcome: One way or another, the crisis will lead to an outcome. One side may defeat the other(s), or perhaps call a ceasefire (if it is a war). One party might surrender, giving in to the demands of the other party. The parties may agree to negotiations, either with or without the help of a mediator. An authority or other more powerful third party might impose an end to the fighting. In any case, the levels of tension, confrontation and violence decrease with the possibility of settlement.[92]

Post-Conflict: Finally, the situation is resolved in a way the leads to an ending of any violent confrontation, to a decrease in tensions and to a more normal relationship between the parties. However, if the underlying causes of the conflict have not been adequately addressed, the conflict may just be "settled", and so risk eventually cycling back into another pre-conflict situation ...